Sanccob Eastern Cape, Cape St Francis

Sanccob Eastern Cape, located in the delightful seaside town of Cape St Francis, is a rescue facility for seabirds. Here birds that have been oiled, stranded or injured are nursed back to health. The work done here is critical, as the African penguin population has recently nosedived.

It’s feeding time at Sanccob Eastern Cape, in the shadow of the lighthouse in the lovely coastal town of Cape St Francis.

Xolani Lawo heads into the grassy enclosure where many of the penguins are dozing or balancing on rocks and gently herds them through a door. Each penguin has an identity bracelet on a flipper. Once on the Astroturf feeding platform, the volunteers call out the details to Xolani: 'Nip has had four sardines; four fish for Nella; four tails for Barcelona; Elvis had one small tail and three long tails.'

Most of the birds are African penguins (not surprising because two of the most important breeding islands for this dwindling species, Bird Island and St Croix, are not far away). But sometimes a few exotics arrive. Nip and Tuck, rockhopper penguins with crazy yellow hair-dos, are from Prince Edward Islands in the Southern Ocean. Sailors might have caught them and then let them go close to Port Elizabeth. A while back, a king penguin from Antarctica washed up on South African shores and was brought here.

Some penguins have been caught up in oil slicks from ships cleaning their bilges. A single vessel washing its decks can oil 100 penguins, leaving them poisoned, cold (because their feathers are no longer waterproof) and dehydrated.

This centre has treated more than 10 000 seabirds in 25 years. It’s a significant number, given that the African penguin population has suffered a crash from 150 000 pairs in the 1950s to fewer than 26 000 pairs by 2009. In 2010 they were put on the list of endangered animals.

Sanccob Eastern Cape runs a highly professional operation. It’s not specifically geared around visitors, although they are made welcome. Visitors can come at any time and see penguins in an outside enclosure. There's also a shop which sells souvenirs like t-shirts, and which is open daily whenever the Sanccob staff are there, generally between about 8am and 4pm.

Some penguins can never be released (like Stevie, who is blind). But for the staff at this sanctuary, the happiest days of all are when healthy penguins can be taken to the beach and released. They head straight home, without a backward glance.

Travel tips & Planning info

How to get here

Cape St Francis is about 90km or less than an hour's drive from the nearest airport at Port Elizabeth. Take the N2 towards George, then turn onto the R330 and go through Humansdorp. Turn left at the T-junction, then follow the signs to Cape St Francis. Once there, head for the lighthouse.

Best time to visit

The penguins are fed twice a day, between 8.30am and 10am in the mornings, and mid-afternoon.

Around the area

Do find time to admire the historic lighthouse, the highest such masonry structure in South Africa.

What will it cost

There is no charge for visiting, but if you'd like to adopt a penguin, it will cost R500.

Length of stay

This is a lovely half-day excursion.

Where to stay

There is plenty of accommodation in nearby Cape St Francis and St Francis Bay.

What's happening

You'll find long golden beaches here, plus thick, unspoilt vegetation, and some lovely seafood restaurants.

Best buys

The curio shop contains delightful penguin hand-puppets and other objects made by the local community.

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