Why you should care
It’s the smelliest and most exhausting job (with no salary) that you’ll absolutely love.
“A few weeks ago, I’d never even seen a real penguin,” gasps Nils Greskewitz as he chases after a waddling escapee. Now he’s spending his days handling, cleaning, measuring and feeding these adorable little birds. Choosing to leave Germany to volunteer at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) seabird rescue and rehab center in Cape Town, South Africa, was “the best decision I ever made,” he says as a cormorant whizzes past his left ear. Behind him, two dozen recovering African penguins swim in circles around a steep-walled pool — they’re in the middle of an important “ocean swimming” rehab session and are not allowed a moment’s rest on dry land.
SANCCOB relies on overseas volunteers to do much of its work, which is great news for average joes who want to make a real difference to the future of endangered seabirds. Volunteering ain’t easy (bank on early starts, loads of standing and plenty of bites), and the work is far smellier than you can imagine (leave the glad rags at home). But the incredible views of Table Mountain, spied across a wild wetland that’s home to flamingos and pelicans, and the lifelong relationships forged — both human and avian — more than make up for any hardship. “The personalities of the birds are as varied as those of the people I work with,” says Liam Healy, an 18-year-old volunteer from Washington, D.C., whose 10 weeks at the center have convinced him to study marine biology — not math or computer science — when he starts college later this year.
SANCCOB is on a mission to reverse the decline of seabird populations through the rescue, rehabilitation and release of birds in need — especially endangered species like the Cape cormorant and the African Penguin. The knee-high penguins, which weigh in at about 6 pounds, have seen their numbers plummet from around 4 million in the 19th century to only 45,000 today. The reasons for the decline are complex, but here’s a brief summary: Guano collection destroyed the penguins’ island habitats, forcing them to move to the mainland, where they have many predators — humans, caracals, cats, dogs and even leopards.
Have you ever tried picking up a penguin?
Since 1968 SANCCOB has treated more than 95,000 seabirds, and their efforts after the June 2000 Treasure oil spill alone likely saved 30,000 penguins from certain death. Even when there aren’t spills, they’re kept busy treating sick and injured birds and, between October and January, they receive an influx of abandoned penguin chicks. In recent years they’ve even been bringing abandoned eggs — African penguins can be careless nesters — into the center to be incubated, hand-reared and ultimately released.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say we simply couldn’t keep going without our overseas volunteers,” says Marguerite du Preez, the center’s volunteer coordinator. With only 22 permanent staff and a limited budget, volunteers have to get in the muck and get their hands dirty (very dirty) from Day 1. Some volunteers progress to a point where they’re able to hand-feed birds within days. Others take a bit longer to get the hang of things … have you ever tried picking up a penguin?
If you’re not able to spare six weeks to volunteer at SANCCOB, you can always take an hour-long tour for $4 (further donations are very welcome). You’ll get to see all of the stages of the rehab process, meet some of the “lifers” (birds that, for various reasons, couldn’t be released into the wild) and — if you plan carefully — witness the fun of feeding time. Tours resume in January 2018, when current building works will be completed.
It’s not everyone’s idea of a vacation, says Healy. “But I’ve gotten to do something not many people even dream of, and in one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” he says.
Do it: Volunteer at SANCCOB
- Who: The volunteer program is open to anyone older than 18 who is fit and prepared to work extremely hard.
- When: Volunteers can come throughout the year, provided they stay for at least six weeks. You’ll work five days per week (the exact days will vary from week to week), from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
- Cost: There’s a small administration fee of R1800 ($140) for the six weeks. You can stay longer for an extra R300 ($23) per week.
- Sleep: You’ll have to pay for your own accommodation, but Marguerite will gladly assist in finding you a place to stay nearby.
- Where: SANCCOB is located next to the Rietvlei wetland in the beachfront suburb of Table View, about 12 miles from the center of Cape Town.