Home. Transitions Abroad founded 1977.  
Travel Work Living Teach Intern Volunteer Study Language High School

The Penguins of SANCCOB

A Unique Volunteer Program in South Africa

Volunteering to rinse Penguins to prepare them to be set back to the wild.
The author volunteers to rinse penguins needing rerhabilitation to prepare them to be set back to the wild in South Africa.

I have never considered myself a bird lover but I do have one bird goal in life—to see every species of penguin in their natural habitat. This goal was formed after I visited New Zealand and saw the Yellow Eyed Penguins. I found out there are only 17 different species of penguins. As they all reside south of the equator, I figured this was a “to-do” item that would be relatively easy to accomplish.

When researching wildlife projects in South Africa, I located the opportunity to work with the African Penguin, or “jackass penguin” at SANCCOB, the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds.

The goals at SANCCOB are the rehabilitate and return as many sea birds back to the wild as soon as they are well enough to fend for themselves. SANCCOB is an integral part of the global community that works to improve the prospects for sea birds. It is in constant dialogue with other rehabilitation agencies around the world and sends staff and support during major sea bird incidents when possible.

SANCCOB depends on three types of volunteers—local, international experts, and unskilled international volunteers willing to be trained.

Local volunteers are used on a set schedule each week. During my time at the center, I saw 10 different volunteers on a rotating basis. SANCCOB also has a list of over 150 volunteers that they can call on during a major bird intake. These volunteers work around the clock to help oiled or injured birds, and keep them hydrated, medicated, and fed during their recovery period.

Single penguin swimming.
Single penguin swimming.

International Expert Volunteers 

I was impressed to learn that if there is a major oil spill situation, there are professionals and expert volunteers around the world from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a partner with SANCCOB, that fly to the affected area to help.

The staff and local volunteers always handled the de-oiling process and the multiple-step washing procedure that can take several hours per bird. During my time, only three oiled penguins appeared.

When you work with SANCCOB as an international volunteer you sign up for a minimum of six weeks. The organization requires that length of commitment because it takes time to become proficient handling the birds and learning the systems at SANCCOB. Typically, you begin on a Monday and work for five days the first week. Your first weekend is off. After the first week, you will work five days out of seven with at least one weekend day on the schedule. Because the staff is accustomed to working with international volunteers, you can expect to receive a work schedule for your entire stay. This makes it nice as you can plan side trips or excursions during your time off.

During my time, we were encouraged to wear clothes that we didn’t mind getting wet. Over our clothes we wore thick plastic overalls and knee boots. They both came in various sizes, but I found that you had to get there early in order to get the ones that you preferred and fit.

When working with the birds, we also wore neoprene sleeves (similar to a light weight dive suit) and a neoprene glove on our non-dominant hand. Early on, another main part of my uniform included a band-aid on almost every finger on my right hand.


The day usually started at 8 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m.

Daily maintenance was similar to volunteer placements that work with wildlife. The main duties were food preparation, pen cleaning and medical treatments.

Food Prep

The pools were filled with fresh water from hoses attached to a fire hydrant. The birds were fed pilchards. They are basically very, very large sardines, which were from 6 to 18 inches in length and 2-3 inches in width for the large ones. The fish came frozen in large boxes that had to be thawed prior to feeding. The fish become hard to feed if they got too warm, so there were two sessions of thawing the fish in large tubs of water just prior to the morning and afternoon feeds. 

When working with fish and the penguins, the hand that fed fish could not touch the penguin as it might oil their feathers. Oiled feathers meant the bird was not waterproof. After all feedings, the birds were hosed down to make sure that no remnant of fish oil remained behind.

Pen and Pool Cleaning

Pen cleaning began by removing the floor mats to be soaked and cleaned with high-pressure hoses. The walls, dividers, and anything that might be dirty were thoroughly cleaned in a multi-step process. The pen was first disinfected with a dissolved powder solution and scrubbed with brushes mounted on broom poles. After rinsing, an additional scrub was done with a second disinfectant. After another rinse, clean mats were placed back in the pen for drainage and to keep the penguins off the concrete. Once the divider was replaced, the penguins could re-enter ½ of the clean pen.

Pool cleaning had the same 4-step process as in the pens. After cleaning, the pool was filled to a depth of about two feet with fresh water from a fire hydrant. 


Depending on number of birds at the time, the closest pen to the main hospital held the birds that required the most medical treatments. When assigned this pen, in addition to cleaning and feeding duties, you could expect 2-3 treatment sessions daily. The treatments might include inserting stomach tubes to give water to the dehydrated birds, or Darrow’s solution, which is essentially Gatorade for penguins. Other treatments might include giving pills or putting the birds in a nebulizer box that misted medication for them.

Other duties included cleaning the dirty mats, laundry and drying towels, cleaning the drains, minor landscaping, scrubbing the outside walkways, working with the hospital birds, going on weekly boat releases, and assisting the photographer with photos of the birds available for adoption.

Daily records were kept on each bird including medical treatments and number of fish eaten. Weekly every bird at SANCCOB was weighed, blood tested and evaluated for possible release. A bird was usually cleared for release when they weighed an appropriate weight for their age, had completely waterproof feathers, could swim at least one hour without wanting to come out of the water, and their blood was clear of malaria and Babesia.

What Was It Like To Work At SANCCOB?

At first, it was challenging and a little intimidating. Having never worked with birds, I was not sure how hard to hold them, what to expect and how to keep away from their beaks.

My tension was evident in the early pictures of me trying to feed or tube the birds.

My first week was filled mainly with watching and cleaning. The staff continued to encourage me and other new volunteers to do every procedure. This included catching the bird and holding them between our legs on a stool so that we could insert the stomach tube or feed a fish. After I took my first nip, I realized that while it was no fun, it wasn’t as painful as I expected. That being said, I was glad when I finally had my technique down and was able to read the birds so I could anticipate their movements.

My first breakthrough happened at the end of the first week. A local volunteer helped me realize it was easier to use both hands to open the beak for tubing and feeding. I had been trying to follow an expert while I was still a novice. The same volunteer helped me realize that I would need fewer band-aids if I offered the fish in a specific orientation. I had been holding the fish in the 12 and 6 o’clock positions. As the bird’s beak works the same way, my fingers were always in danger. When I held the fish in the three and nine positions, the birds fed more quickly and I did not need as many band-aids.

During our training, the volunteers are taught ways to lessen the stress on the birds a much as possible. While it seemed counter-intuitive to me, the firmer and faster you could pick up the bird, administer the meds or feed the fish and release them to the other side of the pen, the better for the birds. I wanted to be gentle and slow and I probably wigged them out more than if I had been confident and quick as I dealt with them.

As with any wildlife experience, especially in rehabilitation, not every bird makes it. I was told that most birds arrive pretty compromised. I witnessed my first death at the end of my fifth day at the center. I had just tubed a bird and put it on the other side of the pen. The bird began to convulse and was taken away by a staff member. After I finished my duties, I went to find out what happened. The bird had died and I felt awful. The staff and volunteers were wonderful and assure me that it was not my fault. The next two days was my one full weekend off. Therefore, I had time to rebalance and calm down before I went back to SANCCOB on Monday.

When I entered SANCCOB, 100 birds were in residence. At the end of my second week, we were down to 40 birds after two major releases. By the end of my second week, I felt more confident and felt I could handle most situations, even the big birds that were ready for release.

It was in my third week that my training was tested. Seven hundred abandoned chicks were brought to the center during my third week. The parents were in a premature molt and the chicks were in danger of starving, as they did not know how to fish. For my last four weeks at SANCCOB, I had 12 hours days that included three tube treatments and two fish feeding for the 700 chicks.  Some days were more stressful than others. About once a week, I was rotated away from the pens into the back room. Those duties included thawing the fish, keeping all the supplies stocked, laundry, and preparing the water tubes for the treatment sessions.

When the chicks were new, they were a challenge to handle as they did not know the procedures. They were great eaters however. Previously, I had been very selective regarding the size of fish to feed each pen. Once I saw that the little guys could eat the largest fish with no problem, I no longer had anxiety about feeding the bigger birds.

I am happy to report that 90% of the chicks were returned to the wild within 2-4 months of arriving at SANCCOB.

I stayed at the Elements Guest House in a residential area close to the center. I would walk 20 minutes to work daily. After work, I could walk another 10 minutes to the local mall and grocery store for food and entertainment. At times, I took a 20-minute taxi ride into Cape Town for a day of sight seeing and nice restaurants. Elements also offered tour bookings, so I enjoyed a day of wine tasting with another international volunteer. Another excursion was a township tour in Cape Town and a trip to the Cape of Good Hope, the most southwestern part of Africa.

I was in Cape Town in September and October, which is the end of their winter going into spring. The weather was breezy and a little rainy at times, but I was generally comfortable in long sleeve shirts and jeans. The best part about that time of year is that there were not many bugs.

SANCCOB is a rehabilitation hospital for injured sea birds, predominantly, the African penguin, although all sea birds are accepted. Established in 1968, SANCCOB has worked tirelessly to bring the African Penguin back from near extinction. In the 1970’s there were a number of major oil spills at the tip of Africa and many birds were impacted. In the early years of SANCCOB, it was not uncommon for the agency to loose over 60% of the birds after such a spill. Today, SANCCOB can boast of a return rate closer to 90%. Thanks to SANCCOB, today there are three thriving colonies of African Penguins on Robben Island, Dyer Island and Boulders Beach.

SANCCOB is located in Blouberstrandt, a Northwest suburb of Cape Town. The center is located close to a residential area, but backs up to a wetland that drains into the Atlantic Ocean less than a mile away.

For More Information


Accommodations Recommended by SANCCOB

Elements B &B: Closest. A 20 minute walk from SANCCOB, Private rooms, dormitory or suites available. Laundry and WiFi are extra. Self catering. In addition to rooms, Elements also offers local tours and sporting trips at reasonable prices.

Ask SANCCOB for other accommodation recommendations.

Other Wildlife Organizations in South Africa


Wildlife ACT

GO ECO Volunteering in South Africa

African Conservation Experience

Samples of volunteer projects offered:

  • Baboons
  • Desert Elephants
  • Multiple Wildlife Sanctuaries or Reserves
  • Whale and Dolphins
  • White Sharks
  • Vervet Monkeys

JANE STANFIELD is the author of the book Mapping Your Volunteer Vacation. The book offers a step-by-step approach to help potential volunteers find, plan, prepare, pack, go on and return from an international volunteer vacation. See Jane Stanfield’s bio for more information.

Related Topics
Volunteer in South Africa
More by Jane Stanfield
Guide to Volunteer Programs Caring for Animals
The Wallabies of AACE: Wildlife Volunteering in Australia
Volunteering with Earthwatch in Thailand: Archaeology at Your Fingertips
Related Articles
Volunteer Endangered Animal Projects Abroad
Volunteer at a South African Game Preserve
Volunteer in South Africa's Lion Park
Volunteer in Thailand: Work with Wildlife
Volunteer in Bolivia at a Wildlife Refuge
Mammal Monitoring: Join Conservation Volunteers in Australia's Grampians National Park
Monitoring Macaws in Costa Rica
Helping to Preserve Endangered Species and Ecosystems

About Us  
Contact Us  
© 1997-2024 Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc.
Privacy Policy Cookie Policy Terms and Conditions California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) Opt-Out IconYour Privacy Choices Notice at Collection