Sylvia Hill

Jessica Kemper
Animal Demography Unit

  Sylvia Hill, Namibia
Photo Jessica Kemper
... on the way through the desert to Sylvia Hill ...

Sylvia Hill cave (25 08 S, 14 50 E) is the only mainland penguin breeding colony in Namibia. It is situated on the precipitous rocky shore of the central Namib desert within the Namib Naukluft Park, just northwest of Sylvia Hill. The cave can only be accessed by humans at extremely low tides, but is inaccessible to jackals and brown hyenas, common predators in this area. The cave is roughly 8 m high, 20 m wide and 30 m deep, and (except for the smell) has the awe-inspiring ambiance of a cathedral. Inside the cave one encounters the decidedly surreal sight of penguins nesting or resting on damp, hard guano pedestals resembling stalagmites. These are stacked throughout the cave, between pools of ankle-deep black, soupy guano. Some of the pedestals are up to 1 m in height, suggesting that although the existence of this colony was only first reported in 1980, it must have existed for some time. The penguin population is estimated to be around 300 adult individuals. A few Cape Cormorants also nest on narrow ledges on the walls of the cave.

A second cave is situated about 400 m north of the main cave. It is currently inaccessible to humans, but predators may possibly gain access to this cave via the steep, sandy cliff overhanging the cave - a route not recommended for humans. Although it has been reported that penguins may have bred there historically, it appears that this is not the case at the moment. Cape Cormorants seem to breed inside the cave. Bank Cormorants and Crowned Cormorants roost in the vicinity of the caves, and may possibly breed in the caves as well. Other seabirds reported from the general area include Kelp Gulls, African Black Oystercatchers and Damara Terns.

Owing to the remoteness of the caves, they are only seldom visited, although concerted efforts are now made to census the southern cave at least once a year, preferably during the suspected penguin peak breeding season. Apart from Hollamsbird Island (24 38 S, 14 32 E), which might still support one breeding pair of African Penguin, Sylvia Hill represents the northernmost breeding colony for the species.

Sylvia Hill: cave with penguins
Photo Jessica Kemper
The penguin colony in the cave at Sylvia Hill - one of three mainland colonies of penguins