28th July 2021
Our screens are saturated with shows about penguins. Most are hours and hours of aerial footage, of Emperor and/or King Penguins waddling through endless expanses of ice and snow. A sombre voiceover tells you just how much danger penguins are in because of climate change, followed by a swift shot of a penguin being eaten whole by a killer whale. As the proud adopted mother of an African Penguin, scenes like these, although grounding, leave me rattled and teary-eyed, but also averse to nature documentaries.
Enter Penguin Town, Netflix’s new docu-series that follows a colony of African Penguins in Simon’s Town, South Africa over a period of six months. Covering the dramas of breeding season, our protagonists have only one thing on their mind: mating. More specifically, mating their way out of extinction. They also have to avoid being accosted by tourists and beachgoers and being attacked by seagulls and cats and dogs…their environment is not ideal. Even so, watching their life journey under these tricky conditions – having to find a suitable partner, a safe home and feeding their chicks – is far from terrifying.
Instead, Penguin Town is a comforting show that really encompasses the spirit of penguins. These creatures fall over a hundred times and cover very little distance on their 8-inch legs, but they never give up. Filmed from a height no greater than 3 feet and narrated by comedian Patton Oswalt, this is a show not about the role humans play in the natural world, but about penguins and how they take on this world, one flipper at a time. These tough cookies have backstories more vivid than any character from a modern YA novel and through abundant humour and a general lack of jeopardy, the narrative that Penguin Town builds is a much-needed breather from other animal documentaries.
Often animals that need our help go under the radar because we prefer to watch, learn about, and donate money to cuter and more appealing animals. This phenomenon is known as selective sympathy, and it unfairly affects endangered animals that are…ugly (African Wildlife Foundation, 2018). Unfortunately, African Penguins, particularly the younger ones, aren’t part of the cute penguin bunch, and their obnoxious braying doesn’t help their cause. But in making them lovable characters, Penguin Town helps ensure they get our attention too. Usually it’s the tall and majestic emperor penguins or the shorter king penguins that make it to the front of the camera. But according to the IUCN red list, these two species are of far less concern than African penguins, who are endangered.
Additionally, owing to commercial overfishing, African Penguins are compelled to shift their diet from sardines to anchovies, which is not nutritionally sufficient. This lack of suitable prey, along with oil spills and habitat destruction, has been the primary cause of decline in African Penguin populations. In 2019, the breeding population fell to 20,850 pairs, an all-time low (Sherley et al., 2020). Furthermore, their colonies are mostly found in the Western Cape of South Africa, specifically around Boulders Beach near Simon’s Town and in Stony Point, Betty’s Bay. Both have become popular tourist destinations, meaning that these penguins must live among humans as well as natural predators.
Penguin Town discusses all these difficult facts, but not in a way that is overwhelming for watchers. With plenty of puns packed into eight short episodes, it tells you everything you need to know about African Penguins and their biology, without you shedding a single tear. Rather than a feeling of helplessness from the tough reality of climate change, the penguin-centric narrative of the show encourages you to act in any way you can; even just as a tourist, you can stay out of their way when they head to sea to find food for their starving broods.
Everything about climate change and consequent biodiversity loss is grim. We are caught in an elaborate dance with what needs to be done and what is being done. Instead of succumbing to the compassion fatigue created by sad documentaries, watching Penguin Town, and familiarising yourself with African Penguins is, in my humble opinion, a good place to start.
Ushashi is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Science Communication at Imperial College London. She is also the social media manager of I, Science. She loves all kinds of penguins and advocates for penguin conservation efforts whenever, wherever.
- African Wildlife Foundation (2018) Selective Sympathy. https://campaign.awf.org/selective-sympathy (Accessed 27/07/2021)
- Sherley, R. B., Crawford, R., de Blocq, A. D., Dyer, B. M., Geldenhuys, D., Hagen, C., Kemper, J., Makhado, A. B., Pichegru, L., Tom, D., Upfold, L., Visagie, J., Waller, L. J., & Winker, H. (2020). The conservation status and population decline of the African penguin deconstructed in space and time. Ecology and evolution, 10(15), 8506–8516. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.6554
- Veríssimo, D., and Smith, B., 2017. When it comes to conservation, are ugly animals a lost cause? Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/are-ugly-animals-lost-cause-180963807/ (Accesses 27/07/2021)