‘Rocky’ flies home

EL the rockhopper penguin is the newest resident at the Two Oceans Aquarium.

Penguins are usually flightless birds but EL, a rockhopper penguin, who has become the newest resident of the Two Oceans Aquarium, proved that the sky is the limit.

EL arrived by plane in Cape Town on Friday June 28.

The bird had travelled from the Eastern Cape and was collected at the airport by the aquarium’s penguin keeper, Shanet Rutgers and penguin husbandry intern, Martine Viljoen.

The young bird spent a month in quarantine at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob) in Table View before being taken to its new permanent home at the Two Oceans Aquarium at the V&A Waterfront.

Marketing manager Devon Bowen details the penguin’s journey in a blog on the aquarium’s website.

According to the blog, the tiny, juvenile rockhopper penguin had washed up on the Eastern Cape coast and was found by the public near East London. It underwent initial rehabilitation at the East London Aquarium, and once stabilised, was flown to Cape Town so that it could find a home in the rockhopper penguin colony at the aquarium.

It spent a month in Sanccob’s Intensive Care Unit where a bone infection was identified in both of its feet. Luckily, treatment was able to begin early and despite having a really odd gait, “this rocky is now in excellent health”.

“Sanccob and the Two Oceans Aquarium have a long history of working together. Their help is always indispensable when it comes to caring for new bird arrivals at the aquarium,” said Ms Rutgers.

“Sanccob’s excellent team of veterinary staff and volunteers took it upon themselves to fatten up the malnourished little bird, and give it a full panel of health screenings. We are incredibly grateful for their assistance and support.”

The penguin was transferred to the Two Oceans Aquarium and was introduced to its new penguin (and human) family on Monday July 29.

At the time the bird was still unnamed. The aquarium left it to the public to name the new resident and launched a social media campaign. More than 180 suggestions were put forward, and a clear favourite emerged – “EL” – short for East London, and a nod to all the Stranger Things fans that voted as the television series has a character named Jane “El” Hopper.

Mr Bowen, in his blog, said young EL is still nervously getting to know the other penguins.

“Although spirits are high and we have no doubt that this bird will soon be the most popular youngster on the beach. EL is already making friends with her new human family, and uses every opportunity to explore the aquarium. At this stage it is still unclear whether EL is male or female.”

According to Mr Bowen northern rockhopper penguins are native to several sub-Antarctic islands thousands of kilometres from South Africa. It is unclear how the young bird ended up so far from home but Mr Bowen said it is unlikely that a penguin this young, still with part of its chick “fluff” and not fully coated in waterproof feathers, could have swum that far.

“What is more likely, is that this penguin was poached by fishermen nearer to its colony and kept on the boat, then thrown overboard when the boat neared South African waters to avoid being fined by the authorities,” he said.

“It is difficult to prove that poaching and unethical fishermen are responsible for the stranding of these rockhopper penguins, but we do know for a fact that some of them have been in the hands of poachers.

“For example, Teddy the golden oldie of the Two Oceans Aquarium rockhoppers was rescued with his feet tightly bound together with wire. We could speculate that EL’s foot injuries are due to the same reason, but we will never know for certain.”

The nearest northern rockhopper penguin colonies to the Cape are those on Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island – both more than 2 500km away. This distance, however, is not the reason this young penguin cannot be returned home.

“We cannot ascertain which colony the penguin is from, so releasing it into the wild means potentially contaminating the gene pool of the wild colonies. It could also mean that pathogens not found around these islands, but which are present in South Africa’s coastal waters, could be introduced into these colonies, further endangering the wild penguins.

“This, unfortunately, is the fate of all sub-Antarctic penguins that reach the South African coast,” Mr Bowen said.

EL will remain at the Two Oceans Aquarium, where the penguin will live among the largest colony of northern rockhopper penguins in South Africa, be cared for by the aquarium team of professionals, loved by thousands of visitors and will help contribute to veterinary and biological research.