Penguins swim for home as South Africa watches online

CAPE TOWN - They are black and white, about 18 inches tall, go by the names of Peter, Percy and Pamela, and are Cape Town's hottest new celebrities - the stars of the great penguin swimming marathon.

The three African penguins make their homes on islands off South Africa's west coast, but their lives, and those of tens of thousands of their waddling cohorts, were threatened by an oil spill last month off Cape Town.

To save the birds, environmental workers and volunteers took about 20,000 of them off of the islands, trucked them eight hours up the coast and released them to swim home, which they do by instinct. Authorities hope workers have enough time to clean up the oil spill before the penguins make it back.

Peter, Percy and Pamela have star status because of the satellite tracking devices attached to their backs.

The monitors allow the University of Cape Town avian demography unit to monitor their movements, and their swim is featured daily on radio stations and in local newspapers. An Internet site ( that tracks their progress has had more than 41,000 hits.

Peter, who was released June 30, had passed the southern tip of Africa by yesterday morning. He had been swimming at an average speed of 1.6 miles an hour. At that rate, he will reach home Monday or Tuesday.

Percy, who was released July 5, was halfway home. Pamela was some 40 miles behind him, despite having been released two days earlier.

There were tense moments early this week when the tracking devices failed to register readings, raising fears the birds had fallen prey to sharks. But by Wednesday, they were back online. Marine official Rob Crawford said the transmitters stay on only 12 hours at a time to save batteries, and they must have been off when the satellite passed over the birds.

University of Cape Town professor Les Underhill said numerous other birds also had been tagged so their movements can be tracked. It was thought the journey would take about 11 days, but the penguins have been swimming more slowly than expected.

The penguins that were released to swim home were unscathed by the oil spill. But about 23,000 other penguins were coated in oil.

Those birds, which need to be hand-fed for up to two months before their coats again become waterproof so that they can swim in the sea, are being cared for at rehabilitation centers in Cape Town. Fewer than 1 percent of the captured birds have died.

The spill was caused by the Panamanian tanker Treasure, which sank June 23, causing the country's worst environmental disaster. It was carrying 1,300 tons of heavy bunker oil, but authorities are unsure how much leaked.