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Swimming with Penguins in Africa

While admiring the ocean view that my American expat friends Yolanda and her husband Tanner had from their home in Cape Town, Yolanda approached me with a wet suit and said we were taking a ride to Boulder Beach.

I’d traveled to South Africa to heal a broken heart. Seeing the world is one thing that fills my life when other dreams shrivel away. As we drove out of the city, past Zebra grazing in the hills, gorgeous Table Mountain looming in the background, Yolanda told me we were going to swim with the penguins.

African Penguins and a Happy Heart

Unfamiliar with African Penguins, I thought she was joking.
“Right,” I said. “We’re driving to The South Pole?”
“The colony of Penguins we’re about to see,” she said, “just showed up one day. No one knows for sure why. Must’ve been too cold in Antarctica, cause they stayed here.”

I’ve since learned that African penguins are a different species from those in Antarctica, but it was good story, and I was thrilled that she wasn’t teasing. We really were going to see some penguins! This made my heart happy.

Honking Penguins Sound Like a Jackass

African penguins,Penguins in South Africa,where are African penguins found,do penguins mate for life,penguins in AfricaI was excited as the car pulled up to park. Before seeing any birds, though, I heard a sound, sort of a honking noise, and I was told that this colony had been nicknamed “Jackass Penguins,” because of that irritating sound, which was similar to the braying of a donkey. Deflated, I was reminded of the first time I heard that “perfect” guy, who’d later break my heart, fart like foghorn. Nothing’s perfect, not men, nor penguins.

After wriggling into the wetsuits, which was a lot harder than it sounds, I followed Yolanda down toward the boulders and the beach.

And there, in all their adorable glory, were the cutest little waddling things I’d ever seen, lots of them. Their movements, weight shifting from side to side, reminded me of babies learning to walk. White bellied with black backs, they were tinier than Antarctic penguins. It was hard to resist the urge to pick one up and cuddle it. They wouldn’t let me, of course. One could get within about three feet, and then they’d either waddle away, or twist their heads from side to side, warning foolish humans to back off or be bitten.

This human had the good sense to give them space, though, and the penguins didn’t seem bothered by me, or the other tourists. In fact, they seemed to enjoy the company.

Do Penguins Mate for Life?

A few of the birds stood around in pairs. Yolanda said that they’re monogamous and mate for life. That impressed me. Jackasses? Hardly. That’s anthropomorphizing. These penguins were honorable. One couple, “Harry and Sally,” gazed into each other’s eyes and allowed me get close enough to take their picture. They were in love and would stay that way. They’d nurture the egg Sally would lay and they’d raise their baby together. Sally would never have to fly away to mend her broken heart.

The penguins had a segregated swimming section. No humans allowed. However, next to that, was an area where tourists were permitted to swim. With a sense of entitlement the penguins popped into that water, continually, and in proximity to human swimmers. None swam near me and my tight wetsuit, though. My recent breakup must have emitted a scent that put them off. Still, it was fun watching the happy couples frolicking.

If not for that trip, or I’d still think Penguins were unique to Antarctica. Not only can travel heal the heart, it also expands the mind.

Toni Ann Johnson is a Sundance Institute Screenwriter’s Lab alum. She won the Humanitas Prize for her civil rights era teleplay “Ruby Bridges,” in 1998. In 2004 she won a second Humanitas Prize for “Crown Heights,” the Showtime drama about the 1991 riots between African-American and Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She also writes dance movies and books about health and beauty. Her books Vibrating Youth and Vibrant and Clear are available on Amazon. Visit www.vibratingyouth.com, which has nothing to do with penguins in Africa