South Africa

Robben Island

Les Underhill
Animal Demography Unit

  Robben Island
Photo L.G. Underhill
Robben Island, with Table Mountain in the background

Jan van Riebeeck was sent to Cape Town by the Dutch East India Company to establish a replenishment station for ships travelling to the East. He arrived on 6 April 1652. He paid his first visit to Robben Island five months later, in September. His diary records that he returned to the mainland with a good haul of seabird eggs, some penguins and some seals. This was the start of a long process of exploitation, and the beginning of a long history of human impact on Robben Island.

Robben Island is the largest of the islands along the coastline of South Africa. It is 507 ha in area, roughly oval-shaped, and about 2 km in length from north to south. The island is fairly flat, with a few low sandy ridges. The bedrock is a blue slate, eminently suitable for construction. Rock quarried on Robben Island was used by the newly-arrived Dutch settlers to build the castle in Cape Town in the 1660s. The Robben Island lighthouse was built in 1863 on the highest point of the island, called Minto Hill, which is about 30 m above sea level.

Robben Island's proximity to Cape Town had the inevitable result of it becoming the least natural of all the islands along the South African coastline. For three and a half centuries, it has been used for many purposes. First, the seals and seabirds were exploited. Subsequently it has been used for agriculture, for quarrying slate and lime, as a military base to defend the approaches to the port of Cape Town, as a place of isolation for lepers and the mentally disadvantaged, and then as a notorious prison. It is now the Robben Island Museum. Robben Island acquired the status of World Heritage Site in 1999. In spite of all the modifications, the island remains a choice destination for ecotourists.

The original colony of African Penguins on Robben Island was exterminated by about 1800. From then until 1968, when SANCCOB was started, penguins would only have occurred on the island as occasional vagrants. Robben Island was the place where SANCCOB released most oiled penguins after they had been cleaned. They left the island almost immediately, and headed back to their own colonies. One penguin, which had been oiled in 1979 on St Croix Island and brought to SANCCOB for cleaning, was released here and covered the 900 km back to its island in 11 days.

In 1983, penguins recolonized Robben Island. The colony has grown rapidly, and there are now about 13 000 penguins which moult on the island – this means that they regard Robben Island as "home". In May 2000, just before the Treasure oil spill, there were 5 500 pairs of penguins on the island, making this the third largest colony for the species. Only the colonies at Dassen Island and St Croix Island were larger.

Apart from the mainland colonies at the Boulders and Stony Point (Bettys Bay), Robben Island provides the most accessible place for people wanting to see the penguins. It is also the best of the three colonies to give an impression of seeing penguins in their natural breeding environment (the two mainland colonies are not in typical penguin habitat). The ferry service to the Robben Island Museum runs almost hourly, especially in summer; there is enough time within the standard three-and-a-half hour museum tour to give the visitor an opportunity to see the penguins.

Robben Island book  

Just north of the harbour where the ferry arrives is an excellent hide which overlooks the main penguin landing shore. There is also a raised boardwalk from which visitors can almost always see penguins on their nests. From the hide, there are always penguins in view. The section of the island's coastline in front of the hide was the part that was worst impacted by the Treasure oil spill in June 2000. Thousands of oiled penguins were removed from this area over a period of several weeks as they came ashore oiled and taken to SANCCOB for cleaning. Many thousands more clean penguins were captured on their nests in the adjacent colony and were translocated to Cape Recife, Port Elizabeth, to prevent them from becoming oiled.

Robben Island is the subject of the first Bright Continent Guide published by the Avian Demography Unit. This booklet, by Rob Crawford and Bruce Dyer, provides a valuable overview of the wildlife of the island. There is also a chapter describing the seabirds, whales and dolphins you have a good chance of seeing during the ferry crossing from Cape Town harbour.

Robben Island on the old ADU website:

Robben Island map