Hossam Allam, Maryann
Bird, Rowena Cairns, Carlie Tietjen, Arda van Dongen
Dyer, Samantha Petersen (assisted by Marienne de Villiers and David Prys-Jones)
Text by Maryann Bird
Photographs by Marienne de Villiers
Day 1 (Thursday, 8 Aug.)
On a gloriously sunny and warm winter day, Earthwatch Team VI and project
scientists and staff members gathered in the reception area of the Two
Oceans Aquarium, on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. We introduced
ourselves over drinks, then set off for a get-acquainted lunch at the Docks
restaurant, beside the Nelson Mandela Gateway, our departure point for
Robben Island. After a delicious and jovial lunch, we loaded our luggage
and a large supply of food onto the staff ferry bound for the island, the
World Heritage Site that was to be our home for the next 14 days. During
the half-hour ride across Table Bay, we enjoyed both the view of the Cape
Town skyline, dominated by Table Mountain, and of the sea, where we saw
a Southern Right whale splashing in the far distance.
Table Mountain: the view from "the Far Side"
First view of the Prison
When we reached Murray’s Bay harbor, our project leader for Week 1,
Bruce Dyer, a seabird specialist at Marine and Coastal Management (MCM),
shuttled people and luggage to our field headquarters, 12 Light House Road.
After settling into our rooms, we took a sunset walk in the "neighborhood,"
spotting a good number of the locals: Springbok, Bontebok, Steenbok and
European Fallow Deer, plus guinea fowl and rabbits. We were to see plenty
of them during our stay on the island. Not long after enjoying a hearty
dinner of pasta, vegetables and sausages -- and debating the best bathing
and showering techniques, given that we were in for cold-water washes --
we called it a day, keen to start our penguin adventures with Bruce the
Day 2 (Friday, 9 Aug.)
Up at 7 a.m., the hardy team breakfasted, climbed aboard our little
truck and left for the Robben Island Museum offices, housed at the former
maximum-security prison best known for inmate Nelson Mandela. There, we
met up with environment officer Mario Leshoro (whom we’d met at our waterfront
lunch the previous day). After a few of us dispatched e-mail messages to
friends and family via Mario’s account, we set out to start our first work
with the penguins: checking Earthwatch’s tagged and numbered nests near
We found that some of the nests were unoccupied, others housed penguins
with one or two fluffy chicks (in one case, a dead chick, smothered by
a parent), while others contained penguins sitting on one or two eggs,
or perhaps one chick and one egg. The team learned the critical stick technique:
using a piece of wood to lift up the bird to see what, if anything, it
was incubating. Some of the penguins, having already warned us that we
were too close by their tilting head movements (first gazing from one eye
and then the other), snapped at the sticks; others simply ignored them.
Bruce found a dead Blacksmith Plover, a black, white and grey seabird
that was later put in the freezer at the house. (Is this in the interest
of science, or of cuisine?) The team itself sustained its first (minor)
casualty when Rowena (dubbed Scully by Hossam for her resemblance to Gillian
Anderson of "The X-Files") was stung by a bee.
After lunch, we checked the MCM’s monitored nests.
Social highlights of the day included Hossam’s befriending children
whose names he’ll be happy to relate, including click sounds; a delicious
dinner of chicken Dijon and vegetables; Hossam’s shock insistence that
he enjoyed doing pole dancing (turned out he actually meant ballroom dancing);
Rowena pouring Kahlua (or, in Danish-Arabic, Kahlulu) and teaching team
members the card game "Guts," which was played for small stakes with Carlie’s
roll of lucky U.S. pennies. In the end, Carlie did not actually lose her
favorite wristwatch and no ATM cards were sacrificed.
Mario and Arda strolling by the prison
Arda demonstrating nest-checking technique
Day 3 (Saturday, 10 Aug.)
A good and satisfying day for Bruce and the team. After our morning
e-mail session, we set off with the intention of renumbering nest signs
where the weather had eroded the numbers. Instead, Bruce spotted an oily
penguin on the rocks at the edge of the sea and decided that it had to
be caught and cleaned up before it disappeared. He and Mario approached
the bird from different sides, closing in on it until Bruce grabbed it.
He held it by the neck while Arda ran to fetch a cardboard box to contain
it. "Scully," as the female penguin was quickly named, was carried back
to Mario’s office and later taken to Cape Town for at least a week’s spa
and rehab treatment by the South African Foundation for the Conservation
of Seabirds (SANCCOB).
Continuing the good deeds, we cleaned up a stretch of the beach, collecting
two large sacks full of fishing line, pieces of metal and plastic and other
discarded items that can be harmful to penguins and other wildlife. Carlie
also contributed a lobster trap to the rubbish pile. Bruce and Mario chastised
a group of week-ending people who took a 4x4 (with Robben Island Museum
markings) down a fragile beach path, and Bruce scolded some tourists for
smoking beyond the harbor area. (One carelessly dropped cigarette butt
or match could set much of the dry island alight.)
Next up, before lunch, was a trip to the island’s shop and the mess,
for charcoal, marinade, wine, beer and other essentials for the traditional
South African braai (barbecue) planned for the evening. After lunch, we
went on a mini-safari, in search of egret and heron nests in the pine trees.
None were spotted, but we completed our spotting of the island’s large
mammals, finally seeing eland (three of the four that live on the island,
in fact). The afternoon also produced sightings of ostriches, chukar partridges
and peacocks and yet more of the usual suspects: rabbits, guinea fowl and
an assortment of seabirds (cormorants, terns, oystercatchers, gulls, etc.)
–- plus, er, penguins.
The team rounded off the journey with a stop at the lime quarry where
political prisoners were once forced to mine limestone in the hot, glaring
sun. Forming a monument, a pile of stones at the entrance to the site was
placed there by the ex-prisoners, Bruce explained, in a ceremony held years
after their confinement on Robben Island had come to an end.
Dinner was our first braai, with Hossam presiding over the grill. With
a crescent moon, Venus and the Southern Cross above us, and the Milky Way
visible in the cloudless black sky, we sipped Castle beer and "Mystery
Red" wine (and put away a couple of other non-mysterious bottles), playing
the Name Game. Carlie, a crack player thanks to her years of reading "People"
magazine, couldn’t stop herself from helping people whose response took
more than a millisecond when their turn came.
Oiled penguin for SANCCOB
Dave on a litter quest
Lighthouse and rising moon
Day 4 (Sunday, 11 Aug.)
Both our morning (post-e-mailing) and afternoon field sessions were
spent searching for ringed birds and recording the nest contents of any
that we found. The day’s tally was 142. One bird’s band was removed due
to a Grade 3 injury: feathers worn down to skin. Mario joined us for lunch
at the house today. Arda acquired a nickname – "Ardabok" – compliments
of Hossam, who heard her moving through the woods, quietly and deliberately,
before he managed to identify her.
Dinner was hake with a homemade tartar sauce and vegetables. After-dinner
chat centered around what to do on Monday, our first scheduled day off.
Suggestions included getting a hotel room just for the hot shower, a sushi
lunch, hot chocolate with Flake bars, and a visit to the Stellenbosch wine
region. But Mother Nature had other ideas. A stormy night, with howling
winds, pounding rain, and thunder and lightning, was to put more than a
damper on the team’s plans.
Maryann striding forth
Parent and kids
Day 5 (Monday, 12 Aug.)
Team VI awoke to learn that Mario was stranded in Cape Town and that
no ferries were running, due to the high winds and very choppy seas. That
meant we were "imprisoned" on Robben Island, cut off from our anticipated
visit to the mainland. With our day out canceled, and no e-mail access,
most of us went back to bed for a while, relishing the solitude. Rain fell
off and on all day, sometimes heavily, in ever-changing weather. Arda entered
data from Sunday’s banded-bird sightings into the computer. David went
out to count Swift Terns (and logged up about 200). Arda, Maryann and Hossam
took walks along the beach and saw three rainbows. Apart from seabirds
(gulls, terns, oystercatchers, etc.) there was very little wildlife about.
Only a lone Fallow Deer and numerous rabbits were sighted. Cape Town, across
the bay, appeared geographically close but psychologically far. For everyone
but Arda, who took the longest walk around the island to take some more,
the day was the first on which the mostly house-bound team didn’t see a
single penguin. Rowena and Carlie, feeling somewhat under the weather,
spent much of the day being "couchboks," reading and watching television.
Inspired by rock videos, they dubbed Dave "Cutiebok" for his boy-band-member
Dinner was spaghetti with two sauces (one for veggies and one for carnivores),
accompanied by wines from the mess. The bad news from the mess was that,
with the ferries shut down by the weather, there was no more beer available
for sale on the island. Hopefully, tomorrow will be a brighter day with
better news. Rowena, Carlie, Arda, Hossam and Maryann stayed up late, playing
rummy, while Bruce went out to look for frogs –- one of which he brought
back to show us.
David went out to count Swift Terns
Cape Town: geographically close but psychologically far
Day 6 (Tuesday 13 Aug.)
Life returned to normal, as the morning ferry brought Mario back, along
with access to his e-mail account. Asked if he missed us on Monday, straight-talking
Mario replied, "No." On a sunny and cool day, with intermittent rain, we
looked for banded birds in the northern plantation area.
After lunch, the penguin trap was set up near the beach and the stomach
contents of 10 captured birds were taken and saved for further study. Of
the 10 penguins caught and temporarily put into SANCCOB boxes for the diet-samples
experiment, three had Grade 3 injuries due to metal ring bands, which Hossam
removed with a pair of pliers as Bruce held the birds. One penguin had
a Grade 1 injury and its band was left in place; the other six were unbanded.
Anchovies appeared to make up the major part of the penguins’ diet, along
with bits of squid and beaked sandfish. Bruce and Maryann closed the gates
to initially trap the birds. Once the penguins were boxed and ready for
"flushing" of their stomachs, David, Hossam, Arda and Rowena all picked
up the birds for Bruce to flush. Carlie and Maryann bravely filled the
water funnel and took notes as Bruce did the least-appetizing part of the
The day’s tally was 76 birds checked and recorded.
Dinner was salmon risotto with vegetables, and -– with our postponed
day off rescheduled for Wednesday and an early ferry to catch -– most of
the housemates turned in early.
"Give me your fish!"
Day 7 (Wednesday 14 Aug.)
Most of the team kicked off their day-release from Robben Island with
an 8.15 ferry to Cape Town. Carlie, Arda, Rowena and Hossam took a city
tour on a topless bus, while Maryann (who’d already done a city tour before
arriving on the island) spent some time on-line in the Internet café
at the waterfront. Rowena ended up somewhat topless herself, when the wind
blew away her favorite cap. Everyone did a bit of shopping (including acquiring
a supply of wine and snacks to bring back to Light House Road), wandered
around the scenic waterfront area, and lunched on Dutch pancakes near the
Mandela Gateway. Maryann was dubbed "Winebok" for her encouragement of
South African wine purchases. After 3.15 drinks outside at Docks and a
bit of souvenir-shopping at the gateway, we caught the 4.30 ferry back
to Robben Island, relaxed and happy.
Dave opted to stay on Robben Island for the day, doing further swift
tern counts and enjoying a bit of solitude in the house.
Dinner consisted of chicken-vegetable soup and potato bake, along with
some of our newly acquired wine. Hossam presented Bruce, who was leaving
us on Thursday afternoon, with a thank-you gift from the team: a framed
photo of Bruce with a beautiful green chameleon.
South Africa's finest...
Rowena, not topless
Day 8 (Thursday, 15 Aug.)
The early morning ferry brought two more housemates from the mainland,
our team leader for the second week, Samantha Petersen, and post-doctoral
student Marienne de Villiers. After Bruce returned from the harbor with
Sam and Marienne, we set off for Mario’s office and an e-mail check. Again,
having been away from us for a whole day, Mario insisted he did not miss
us. Taking that in stride, we set out for the field to check nests in the
Kramat woods and do "retraps" (resightings) in areas A/B/C. Bruce, on his
last morning with us, removed a rubber band from around the neck of one
unbanded penguin. Arda spotted a large molesnake on some rocks, which we
saw again later in the day, in the same location.
After lunch, we bade Bruce a fond farewell -- though he left some one-line
jokes and matchstick tricks behind -- and headed back into the field with
Samantha and Marienne. Arda, Rowena, Carlie and Maryann painted seven birds
with picric (a mild, yellow acid solution), marking them as potential candidates
for the new rubber flipper bands. Dave and Hossam did some beach clean-up,
and Dave found a dead penguin with a metal flipper band. Having difficulty
opening the band on poor little T2657, Dave and Samantha cut off his left
flipper and removed the band that way.
Later in the afternoon, Dave, Rowena and Maryann went with Samantha
to do a wildlife count. On safari, they also saw an absolutely glorious
sunset, with pink, purple and blue clouds nestling above Table Mountain
and all along the horizon, and Bontebok racing around at the island’s old
airfield as a fiery orange sun sank into the bay.
Arda, Hossam and Carlie kept busy with some further beach clean-up.
Dinner had a Chinese flavor: a rice dish containing chicken, cabbage
and other vegetables, plus raisins. The big event of the day, though, was
the team’s first opportunity to take proper hot showers. A key to an empty
house did the trick, and the hot, plentiful, powerful water supply therein
was much relished – first by Carlie, Maryann, Rowena, Hossam and Arda.
Dead Penguin with band
Day 9 (Friday, 16 Aug.)
Marienne set off early with Arda to evaluate the possibility of setting
up a disturbance experiment involving Cape Cormorants and Bank Cormorants
at the breakwater near the harbor. Due to a combination of factors, she
did not come away optimistic about conducting the experiment at the site.
After our usual e-mail session, Mario said he’d arrange for us to do the
prison and island tour on Saturday morning, something we’ve all been looking
A check of Thursday’s seven picriced birds (by Sam, Mario, Maryann and
Carlie) produced only one that received the new rubber I.D. tag. Mario
slipped the band, numbered A21041, on to a penguin with an unbanded mate
and two chicks. At least three of the other six birds were ruled out for
various reasons, while the rest will get a second evaluation in the near
future. Samantha and Mario’s team spent the remainder of the morning doing
resightings in the beach area, where Mario discovered a recently expired,
oily penguin (with no I.D. band). Samantha spotted a Great White Shark
quite close in, and her team watched it for a while, from the beach and
then from the penguin hide. Marienne, Arda, Hossam, Dave and Rowena conducted
an oystercatcher survey along the perimeter road.
After lunch, Marienne returned to Cape Town to attend to some work there
until Sunday. In late afternoon, Hossam, Dave, Rowena and Maryann conducted
penguin counts at key crossing points between the beach and the woods.
Dave and Hossam took the quiet road, Maryann and Rowena the busy road between
the harbor and the prison. Returning to land from the sea were 139 penguins,
while 17 were commuting against the traffic. Maryann and Rowena observed
busy vehicular and tourist traffic (and three Steenboks), while Dave and
Hossam (who climbed a tree to observe the penguins, only to be betrayed
by a nosy rabbit) saw more far birds – and most likely the same Steenboks.
Arda and Carlie took to the penguin hide to record the appearance of banded
Re-sightings: A banded bird on an egg
Hossam and Arda on the Oystercatcher survey
Day 10 (Saturday, 17 Aug.)
After our morning e-mail session in Mario’s office, the team (expanded
by one with the arrival of Samantha’s boyfriend Aldo), joined the tourist
hordes aboard a bus for a tour of the island (among other things, a former
leper colony and military garrison). The brief glimpse into history was
followed by a sobering visit to the maximum-security prison, a symbol of
South Africa’s more recent past. Inside the prison, our guide was Ntoza
Talakumeni, who spent four years there as a political prisoner during the
apartheid years. After having initially been sentenced to 25 years (reduced
to 14 on appeal), he was freed after the former white-minority regime announced
in 1989 that all political prisoners would be released. "They said I was
a terrorist, but I was not," Talakumeni told us. "I was a freedom fighter,
a liberator of my own country." A highlight of the visit was cell no. 5,
where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years, sleeping on a floor
mat with only a few blankets, a metal cup and plate and a bucket to call
Our afternoon field session, after lunch, found Dave and Carlie checking
swift tern numbers, and Samantha leading the rest of the team in doing
nest counts, retraps and site checks in areas C, D and E. A late-afternoon
check on the one penguin that was banded with the new rubber tag on Friday
proved futile. The bird, its partner and two chicks were all gone from
their nest. Did they simply move deeper into the thicket, or is there a
more sinister explanation? We will look again on Sunday.
Dinner was our second braai, with Dave and Aldo acting as masters of
Flowers softening a grim facade
Samantha checking a burrow
Day 11 (Sunday, 18 Aug.)
It was a 7 a.m. start for the team today, as Dave, Maryann and Hossam
counted penguins en route to and from the beach (total for the two-hour
experiment: 530 heading for the beach, 7 heading away). Meanwhile, Arda
and Carlie -– from the penguin hide -- checked band numbers before returning
to the house for a special Sunday breakfast prepared by Samantha, Aldo
and Marienne (Marienne arrived back on Robben Island after her brief mainland
break). Rowena, who has not been feeling well, took an early ferry to Cape
Town to see a doctor. (Diagnosed with sinusitis, she was given a prescription
for antibiotics -– which may or may not curtail her wine drinking.)
After breakfast, we made our traditional pilgrimage to Mario’s office
for e-mailing, then set off with him for the field to check Earthwatch
nests and retraps in the Kramat woods, area D and the perimeter road, plus
the wooden box nests (most of which were unoccupied). We also picked up
some more trash on the rocky beach. A check for the missing penguin family
that includes the new-banded adult again provided futile, increasing fears
for the lives of the two chicks.
The afternoon brought a few free hours after our early start on the
day. Hossam and Carlie took to the roads on bicycles, Rowena (back from
the doctor and back under her duvet on the sofa) watched the Hungarian
Grand Prix on TV (joined intermittently by Dave, Maryann and Arda. The
glorious weather inspired Arda and Maryann to do some laundry (to combat
last night’s barbecue smoke) and hang it in the warm sunshine. Aldo returned
to the mainland after his weekend on the island.
In late afternoon, Samantha, Dave and Maryann looked for nesting herons,
without success, then retired to spot wading birds at the Van Riebeeck
slate quarry (where "ordinary" convicts at the prison – as opposed to political
prisoners -- once toiled) and along the coast road. Marienne, Arda, Hossam
and Carlie went on the team’s second wildlife survey. Rowena, who remained
at the house, prepared a chicken curry dish for dinner.
Penguin crossing - no zebras here
A load of rubbish, disposed of by Sam & Sam
Day 12 (Monday, 19 Aug.)
The team went off to Cape Town on the 8.15 ferry for our second scheduled
day off. Rowena, Arda, Carlie and Hossam headed for the wine region around
Stellenbosch for a private tour, while Maryann and Dave spent the day in
the waterfront area. Everyone had an enjoyable day, particularly the four
wine-tourists, who visited the Durbanville Hills, Uitkyk and Plaisir de
Merle estates and savoured an exquisite banquet lunch at Boschendal.
Dinner was hake fillets and vegetables and even more tasty wine, propelling
everyone to bed early, tired but happy.
Day 13 (Tuesday, 20 Aug.)
Arda was up and out before sunrise to watch (from near the hide) the
streams of penguins en route to the sea. A bit later in the morning, most
of the team checked Earthwatch nests and did further retraps, after an
e-mail visit to Mario’s office. (Mario insisted, again, that he did not
miss us on our day off.) Samantha, Mario, Marienne, Rowena and Maryann
did more beach cleanup. Two more birds (possible candidates for the new
rubber flipper bands) were "pinkriced" with Rhodamin B, a rosier substance
than the yellow picric, which the team had run out of a few days earlier.
The afternoon was devoted largely to catching up on data entries for
the past several days. Marienne and Arda saw 51 Bank Cormorant nests on
the island’s breakwater, and 11 birds roosting on the old jetty. According
to Marienne, the old jetty may be an alternative nesting site for the birds,
as renovation work is due to begin at the breakwater later this year. In
past years, the Bank Cormorant population on Robben Island has comprised
up to about 10 percent of South Africa’s population of the species.
As the evening approached, the women piled into the car, while Hossam
and Dave took to bicycles, for the short ride to the western beach to watch
another gorgeous Robben Island sunset and observe the numerous seabirds
circling overhead. With a magnum of 1998 cabernet sauvignon provided by
the four housemates who went to Stellenbosch on Monday –- and new glasses
acquired in Maryann’s Cape Town shopping expedition – we enjoyed our penultimate
night on Robben Island, toasting new friends and a wonderful two-week experience.
With a round of camembert provided by Samantha and a bag of honey-mustard
pretzels, we sipped our wine under a nearly full moon and a sky full of
stars, before heading back to the house for a tasty dinner of noodles with
either beef or chicken stew, and more wine. We topped the evening off with
the first card game in several nights – Rummy 500, with Carlie in the lead.
Sundowners near the wreck
Day 14 (Wednesday, 21 Aug.)
Rowena and Maryann left the house before sunrise to walk to the penguin
hide and watch the birds’ activities at the beach, for the sheer pleasure
of it. Sue Kuyper, whom we last saw at lunch on Day 1, arrived on the early
ferry to attend to some administrative matters. She joined Samantha, Marienne,
Carlie, Arda and Rowena in the field (where we checked a number of nests,
some Earthwatch’s and some MSc student Jenny Griffin’s), while Hossam and
Dave remained at the house to initiate the final clean-up prior to our
departure for Cape Town early on Thursday morning. We made our final visit
to Mario’s office, where a few of the team members sent e-mails saying,
in essence, don’t send us any more e-mails c/o Mario and the Robben Island
To our delight, Sue brought along copies of "The Adventures of Peter
the Penguin," all personally signed by author Phil Whittington, whom we
also met at our Day 1 waterfront lunch. She returned to Cape Town after
lunch. In the afternoon, we did more cleaning of the house, entered the
last of the data (today’s) into the computer, began to pack our bags, and
relaxed. Rowena sorted out the fridge and Maryann the food cupboards. They
also wrestled the fridge (with its totally ice-encrusted freezer compartment)
outside to defrost. The stubborn ice took a long time melting, until Hossam
attacked it with a space heater after putting the fridge back in its normal
Our final dinner on Robben Island, after last visits to the showers
and a last sunset, was fish and vegetables, accompanied by delicious local
red and white wines. We cannot say we have not eaten and drunk well in
the past two weeks.
We’ve also done a good deal of interesting and, we hope, useful work.
Nest totals: about 300; "retraps:" over 500; bird-species sightings: more
than 50. The game census, conducted on the evenings of 15 and 18 Aug.,
entailed sightings of 471 and 432 animals, respectively (taking in Fallow
Deer, Springbok, Bontebok, Steenbok, Eland, Ostriches and Rabbits (a.k.a.,
The team wound up its last night on Light House Road, under a beautiful
full moon, by playing cards -- Carlie reached 510 in the ongoing rummy
game, and was declared champion; later, with the team peeling off to go
to sleep, Rowena and Dave were left playing "Go Fish," - sharing a bottle
of Champagne (thanks to Rowena) and otherwise preparing for the morning’s
departure on the 8.15 ferry back to Cape Town.
The last sunset
Day 15 (Thursday, 22 Aug.)
To Mario’s great relief, Team VI made it on to the 8.15 a.m. ferry.
With mixed emotions – wishing we could stay longer amid the penguins on
a unique island, while accepting that our stint had come to an end – the
team left for Cape Town. Heartfelt thanks to Bruce, Samantha, Marienne
and Mario for all they’ve taught us and all the laughs, but most especially
for the important conservation work that they carry out year-round.
Our departure from Murray’s harbor to the Mandela Gateway wasn’t to
be the end of the saga. After a truly wonderful, inspirational, educational
and entertaining two weeks, most of the team planned a big night on the
town – with someone else doing the cooking.
And those glorious sunsets once again...
With sincere thanks to Earthwatch for sponsoring the video camera
used to capture all images presented on this web page