It’s hard to believe that you’re ten minutes away from Port Elizabeth city when you enter the Cape Recife Nature Reserve. 366 hectares of unspoilt coastal bush, stretches of beautiful beach and fantastic rock pools are there with a number of hiking trails. If you’re lucky, you see otters.
At the point – the southern tip of the over 90 km-wide bay – the lighthouse stands looking glorious in its stripy onesie and red cap. It’s one of the oldest lighthouses in South Africa, established in 1851 off the aptly-named Thunderbolt Reef. This is a prickly coastline if you’re a sailor … it’s wrecked over 400 ships.
Down the road from the lighthouse, an odd-looking building lurks amongst the fragrant bush that smells like my childhood seaside holidays in Port Alfred. It’s one of five observation posts around PE that were built in World War II to look out for German U-boats. They were staffed by women. In 1942, a radar was built (by men) and legend has it that a fence had to be built between the two because the women were partial to raucous parties! Tsk, tsk.
Plum in the midst of Cape Recife Nature Reserve is the SA Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre, now SANCCOB PE. Here, mainly volunteers rehabilitate injured birds and have an amazing education centre because those cute – but bitey! – li’l tuxedoed birds are in trouble.
Over the last 50 years, a time during which we’ve known better, the African penguin population has declined by 91%. That’s left the world with an estimated total population of 45 000 penguins. By 2025, it is predicted that there will be none left in the wild. None. Why? Humans. We are, to put it simply, starving them into extinction. Overfishing has led to not enough fish; climate change has made the penguins need to swim further to find the cold current fish resulting in them not being able to feed their chicks and then … pollution: oil leaks. It’s heart-breaking.
But, the guys at SANCCOB are passionate about turning this around and they deserve all the support they can get. Keith, who took us around, was fabulous and funny and, well, a perfect penguin ambassador. Also, they’re cool at naming the penguins (who are, if they’re well, returned to the wild as soon as possible). Verona. Barbie. Turtle.
Penguins will return to their home from wherever you release them. Remember Peter, Pamela and Percy? They were living happily on Robben Island when Treasure, a bulk carrier ship, sank off Cape Town, spilling oil into the sea that threatened 76 000 penguins. 20 000 clean penguins were taken to PE and released in the hope that the spill would’ve cleared by the time they made it home. It did, with Peter arriving home – 470 miles away – first. Now that’s called homing instinct.
Note: if you find a penguin in trouble, don’t move it and don’t leave it. Get hold of SANCCOB on 041 583 1830 (business hours) or 064 019 8936 (after hours).
The centre is completely accessible, including the courtyard in which you can watch the li’l guys being fed.
*We visited NMB as guests of the wonderful Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism.