SOUTH AFRICA'S NUMBER 1 VOLUNTEER EXPERIENCE!
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Testimonials

DINY VAN DE LOO

Age 58
Nationality Dutch
Resident USA
Project African Penguin & Seabird Conservation
Diny van de Loo

Thanks to Diny for this extract from her travel blog. Diny has been travelling for much of this year, so we were very pleased to hear from her this month...

"My childhood dream was to be a veterinarian, what of course never happened. But I had wanted for a long time to someday do work with wild life. Through the internet I found the organization AVIVA, which sets up volunteers with a wide variety of projects in South Africa.

North of Cape Town in the suburb of Table View, AVIVA has a beautiful home set up especially for the volunteers that are involved in their projects in this area. Bedrooms are set up dormitary style. With most of the volunteers' ages being from 18 to 35 years, I was the grandmother in the place. There were some other "oldies", but they had left just before I came. However there was no issue of a "generation gap", we all got along just fine.

I had signed on for 6 weeks with SANCCOB. 90 % of the actual animal work is done by international and/or local volunteers. There are a small number of paid staff, but only 2 of them work daily with the animals.

We would start at 0800 with a quick briefing and an assignment of the area where we would be working for the day. Regular staff took take of the aviary (birds that were able to fly and would be close to release) and Home Pen, where animals live that for various reasons can not be released.

I mostly worked in PEN 1, where we had several cormorants, and PEN 2, which has most of the penguins. My favorite area to work. These animals were on the road to recovery. The penguins were divided into 3 groups: the strongest ones are the 1-hour swimmers, then the 20-minute swimmers and finally the non-forced swimmers. As the name implied the 1-hour swimmers were placed in the swimming pool twice daily for a 1-hour swim.

Once in a while after these swims, their feathers were checked for dryness. A penguin coat is like a wetsuit, if it functions well, it will keep the animal perfectly warm, but when it does not, the animal in the wild is basically doomed. It can not swim, because it can not stay warm enough and therefore it can not feed itself. Once an animal was judged strong enough and its coat stayed perfectly dry below the top feathers, it would be released back into the wild. So at the beginning of the day, I would place the 1-hour swimmers in the pool right away.

These stressed penguins will not eat and sometimes not drink. The ones that were dehydrated had a regular schedule for fluid administration. This consisted mostly out of placing a tube through their throat into their stomach and give them fluids with a large 60 cc syringe. Several of them had to have it done 3 x a day + some of them needed medication which we placed deep into their throats.

After the 1-hour swimmers were in the water for 40 minutes the 20-minute swimmers were added to the pool. Only a few animals would be left in the pen, these would be placed aside and we would quickly do a thorough cleaning of the pen. After the 1 hour was up, the non-forced swimmers (the weakest or youngest animals) went into the pool and the gate was opened. At this point any penguin that wanted to come back in was allowed to. The funny thing was that often the 1-hour swimmers were very anxious to come back in, but the non-forced swimmers loved to stay out and swim for quite a while.

Next it was time for feeding. None of them would take fish voluntarily, so we had to take them between our knees, restrain them and forcefeed the fish. Penguins swallow fish whole, so once you had it in partially, they would usually swallow it the rest of the way. They do not have teeth, but they do have little spikes on their tongues facing inward, which helps them to hold onto the fish and push it inward. For the same reason, if the animal did not swallow the fish, you could never pull it back out; it would damage these spikes. We would wait for the animal to spit it out itself, which at times was quite a messy affair.

Penguins look very innocent, cute and sweet, but often this was far from the truth. Our penguins were wild animals that did not understand and appreciate all we were trying to do for them. So they tried to defend themselves with pecking and biting at us. Even though without teeth they could not cause severe injuries, we all ended up with some nice bruises and cuts from them, even though we wore neoprene armguards and one left-handed neoprene glove for protection. We kept the right hand uncovered to be able to insert fish, tubes or pills easily. Penguins have only one hole to discharge all of their bodily fluids, which could happen at any time. So we wore plastic suits to protect ourselves from their 'guano' (a great fertilizer, by the way).

Some animals had wounds and cuts, which we treated several times a day. 3 of our penguins had either been attacked by sharks or seals and had huge cuts over their neck, belly and back. By the time I left I was happy to see that all had healed quite well.

Because the ultimate goal for all of our animals was to return them to the wild, we did not want to 'tame' them. So we did not pet them, and try to get them used to us. Also we did not name them. Each penguin had an impersonal number assigned to it, applied to an armband around its flipper.

A little problem that was caused by the current environment was 'bumble' feet. Penguins are supposed to walk on sand or rocks, not on the flat ground and mats (for adequate cleaning), that we provided them with. So for the long-term birds it caused a sort of pressure sore on the bottom of their feet (called bumble feet), that we also had to treat several times a day.

So our day consisted mostly out of giving fluids and medications 3 x daily, feed fish 2 x daily and letting them swim 2 x daily. In between we cleaned the pen and pool; all of this kept us quite busy. For a while we also had a cape gannet in PEN 2, a beautiful bird, but with a very powerful and big beak, which we treated with much respect. We were all happy the day he was released back into the wild.

Together with PEN 2 we usually took care of PEN 1, where we had 6 cormorants, we had to do similar care with them as with the penguins, but catching them was usually a bigger challenge. With their long necks it was hard to avoid their pecking at our hands and arms. We placed them in a box with breathing holes for a short while when we cleaned their pen.

The majority of our penguins were the 'African penguin'. As the name implies, they are found in Africa. They are quite small, approximately 1 to 1,5 foot (30 to 50 cm. high) and they weigh approx. 3 a 5 kg. Everyone knows that penguins are found in Antarctica, but many also live in the lands surrounding Antarctica, such as Chile, South Africa and New Zealand. The African penguins have had a sharp decline in numbers, a 100 years ago 2 million lived in South Africa, at the present there are only about 26,000 breeding pairs left. SANCCOB's goal is to save these cute creatures from extinction.

Their appearance goes through quite a few changes during their life time. As a baby they are very fluffy, and not waterproof . Next they become a youngster 'Blue Penguin', then a 'Juvenile' and finally an 'adult'. Adults have the most clear and pronounced 'tuxedo' markings.

During my first week at SANCCOB, we did get a 'foreigner' in. A Macaroni penguin, that normally only lives in Antarctica. How did it get here? We did not know, but a theory was, that sailors had picked it up in Antarctica. Upon getting close to Africa, where they were not allowed to have it on board, they probably released it. This one did get a name "Mac". At first I did not think that Mac was going to survive. He was extremely stressed; he would just stand in a corner and seemed to be gasping for air. On top of that he was moulting.

Penguins mould once a year for a period of 3 weeks and between different stages of growing up. During this period they change their feathers and they are not waterproof. They can not swim and feed themselves. Usually they eat a lot before moulting starts, so they can live off their fat during this time.
Slowly Mac came around, he finished moulting and he started to improve. Because Mac can not be released into the African penguin colonies, and we can not bring him back to Antarctica, it was decided that he would stay at SANCCOB. Therefore he was an exception to the non-befriending and no-name rule. We also did not force feed/fluid him, but we offered him the fish by hand.

Max after a while, became very tame with people. He allowed us to pet him and would start preening when approached. On the other hand, he did not allow the African penguins to get too close. After he had finished moulting and he was doing much better, he was placed in 'home pen'. Home Pen is a separate section at SANCCOB where birds and penguins, which for some reason can not be released into the wild, can live out their lives in a natural looking environment. Here Max appeared to be befriending 'Rocky', a rock hopper penguin, who also was a stray from Antarctica.

Another oddball lives in Home Pen, 'Fluffy' an arrested moulder. When Fluffy moulded, he for some reason got stuck in that phase, and never grew a normal coat. This also means that Fluffy can get cold quite easily, and just like humans, needs some extra protection on cool days.

While I was there, we received 2 other 'visitors' from Antarctica, 2 giant petrels. Very large birds, luckily very shy and they never did try to bite us. However, they do not last long in captivity. After the first one unexpectedly died, we set the 2nd one free, as soon as he seemed strong enough.

Besides rehabilitation and conservation SANCCOB also does education for the local population, and tours can be booked at the facility. For the school children Rocky is the star of the show, because he is so friendly and he does not bite. He has the run of the whole place, including our coffee room.

Bobby, the cormorant, also lives permanently at SANCCOB, he flies all over the place and at times interferes with our work. He, however, is not as friendly and will pick at us. However we can make him happy by giving him some fish tails.

SANCCOB has a veterinarian on staff, who checks the animals frequently and takes care of their problems. Once a week all the animals get their weight taken and staff member Priscilla draws blood so they can be checked for parasites or diseases.

In my last week at SANCCOB big changes happened. There was a 13 mile (20 km) oil spill in the neighboring country of Namibia. The facility there could not adequately care for all the affected animals and 129 penguins were trucked to us. They arrived at 3:00 pm after a 1300 km (800 mile) 20 hour drive on a large flatbed truck in cardboard boxes.

Many local volunteers came to help, reporters and tv were on scene and we all worked frantically to get all these birds numbered, recorded, medicated, hydrated and fed. Luckily apparently most of the oil was already removed from their skins, but they had gone through a lot of stress. After a quick swim the work was done for that day by 7 pm.

Each box contains 3 penguins, hungry but in pretty good shape. The new penguins get medicated, fluids and fish. Finally they get to go for a swim and then into the PEN for a well-deserved rest.
But now instead of caring for 20 penguins, we had 160 to take care of. But many local volunteers have been helping and so all has gone well so far. 2 of the new penguins have died in the meanwhile and autopsy showed severe internal trauma, probably sustained during the long drive. Luckily no other birds were affected.

April 24 was my last day and I was sorry to say goodbye to my cute tuxedoed friends and staff and volunteers at SANCCOB.

AVIVA organized many things, including braais (BBQ's) and several tours for their volunteers.
During the 'Cape Tour' we were shown all the beautiful and interesting areas around the Cape area. We saw some of the famous beaches flanked by the 12 Apostle Mountains.

We took a boat ride out to a seal island and of course we had to see Cape of Good Hope, the infamous point that boats have to try to safely get around. The trees reflect the prevailing winds.
Along the way a baboon visited a car and ostriches were running along the road.
Probably everybody's favorite was the visit to Boulders Beach where the African Penguins have a large colony and you can wander near them on a board walk.

A week later AVIVA took us on a 'wine tour'. North of Cape Town are major grape growing areas with many wineries, several are in stunning surroundings. It was very appropriate that it happened to be right on my birthday. Too bad that I am not much of a wine lover, so I did not appreciate many of the wines we got to taste, but I enjoyed seeing all the beautiful areas.

That same night we went with a group of our volunteers to a cultural African restaurant with live music. Together with a piece of cake it sure made my birthday memorable.

Later we went on the 'Cultural Tour' , which showed us more of Cape Town itself. The downtown part is pleasant and very western looking. During the days of Apartheid many areas in the towns were determined to be "whites-only" and the blacks or 'coloreds' who lived there were simply evicted and their houses destroyed. We visited 'District 6' near downtown Cape Town, where 60.000 non-white people were simply uprooted and kicked out. Their houses were bulldozed down. For various political reasons the area was never rebuild and still exists now as a overgrown dirt area.

These people set up shanty towns around the outskirts of cities. Furthermore, many other people have been lured to the big cities with their promises of jobs and money and they also ended up in these 'townships', a very fancy name for crowded areas full of corrugated shacks.

Continuing in the Apartheid era history and the atrocities that were committed, I took a trip by boat to visit Robben Island, the place where many political prisoners, including South Africa's former president Nelson Mandela were imprisoned

Robben Island lies off-shore from Cape Town. During the Apartheid era it was a maximum security prison, where besides common criminals many political prisoners were held.
It was quite impressive. By bus we were taken around the sights on the island. The tour of the prison itself was conducted by a former prisoner, who had spent here 10 years. We were told stories of what life was like for the prisoners and the forced labor they had to do in a limestone quarry.

Of course we saw the maximum security prison with large dormitories and the solitary prison cell, in which Nelson Mandela spend 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner. Pictures show many others of the Apartheid freedom fighters.

Robben Island is off shore from Cape Town with great views of its landmark Table Mountain.
It does not seem very far, but the waters are very cold with powerful currents and sharks. Hardly any prisoners were able to escape alive.

With a group of the volunteers we went 'Shark Cage Diving', in other words; have a very close eye-to-eye encounter with the infamous Great White Shark. We were picked up at about 4:00 am for the 2 hour drive along the coast to Gans Baai.

A few miles off-shore is Dyer Island with big colonies of seals and penguins, which is a major food source for the great white. So we were loaded on a boat and motored to near this island.

We were taken by boat to "shark alley", where a large metal cage was placed on the sde of the boat. It was very interesting to see these scary creatures so close by, being in the cage felt quite secure, we had no fear that he could get to us. The weather was beautiful, the ocean calm and we never totally agreed on the number of sightings we had, but there were many.

We stayed for several hours, then we spent a little while seeing the seals, before returning to Gans Baai. It was evening before we were back in Table View.The seals and penguins on Dyer Island attract the sharks. Life is better at the top of the food chain.

I did a few more visits to Cape Town, either alone or with other volunteers. I roamed around the city and I visited the beautiful and busy waterfront full of shops, restaurants and street entertainment.

I also took a cable car ride up to the top of Table Mountain together with Suzanne, a Dutch volunteer, where we hiked around the flat top for a few hours and admired the views.

I had plenty of time left over, which made that I could fulfill another long-time dream; to learn paragliding. It turned out that there was a paragliding school just a few minutes walk from where I am staying. 'Birdmen' Paragliding is owned and operated by Barry, who has a huge amount of patience to put up with me.

I started out with ground handling on a nearby beach, where I learned how to deal with the parachute and how to run in order to get it into the air. The same day we drove twice to a nearby hill to fly, but each time it was just too windy to get up. But the next day it was good and I flew right away all by myself. So from then on any of my spare time here has been spent flying whenever the weather has been suitable. We have gone to a couple of different areas. Occasionally I do have some tense moments and I still need improvement on my take-offs and landings. I sure do not look like an eagle in the sky, more like a duck, but nevertheless I think that it is a great experience and I've been loving every moment of it.

Today May 3rd I finalized all my paragliding requirement after a great sunny weekend of flying. And so I qualified to get my glider license!!!!"
Kerry Blews
Age: 19
UK
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Kerry Blews
Jitske KingmaJitske Kingma
Age: 21
The Netherlands
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