Stony Point Nature Reserve, formerly an infamous whaling station, is home to African penguins, Egyptian geese, seabirds, dassies, and shipwrecks. A rocky outcrop along the Atlantic Whale Coast, Stony Point is situated below the Kogelberg Mountains.
It’s no secret that I think South Africa’s nature reserves are special, but Stony Point has a unique aura – even without knowing about its sordid whaling past. On a sunny day last week, I spent time at the reserve enjoying the birds and learning about the history of the CapeNautre marine protected area (MPA) where they live.
African Penguin Colony
Stony Point in Betty’s Bay is one of the world’s “largest breeding colonies of African Penguin”. Penguins are adorable, funny birds that often act like humans. Two penguins established the colony in 1982. Today, several thousand live on the reserve, and the population is growing.
“The African Penguin grows approximately 2 feet tall and weighs up to 8 pounds. An endangered species, penguins mate for life and return to the same nesting site for up to 15 years.”
“Decades ago, penguins only bred on islands.” With guano harvesting, seals competing for their food, and commercial “over-exploitation” of fish, it wasn’t a balanced environment for them. Discovering Stony Point was magic! The quiet coastal location comes with an intact environmental habitat, and there are no seals. Renamed African Penguins, these endangered animals were the “first to breed successfully on mainland Africa”.
Shortly after the penguin colony was established, predators discovered them. In 1986, a local “leopard wiped out ninety percent of the colony”. After several tries, the leopard was relocated successfully. After more recent attacks by domestic dogs, Cape clawless otters, mongoose, and leopard, upgraded predator-proof fencing was installed.
Fencing saved the penguins but became “detrimental to the habitat”. Penguin guano has high alkalinity and over time causes fynbos vegetation to die. When the breeding area became barren, the penguins “swam around the fence to find a more suitable inland habitat for breeding”.
“Penguins dive deep and food ball fish to the surface, which helps other seabirds have a fair share of the declining food resource.”
The solution involved importing fynbos brush and creating windbreaks for the penguins. This intervention changed their behavior. They no longer needed to burrow as “branches offered them perfect shelter by raising their nest sites”.
The reserve has a walkway winding through the edge of the breeding area with coastal “views of the rocky outcrops and swimming penguins on one side and shrubbery and nests on the other”. Display boards throughout the complex give insight into African Penguin biology and the history of the reserve. Penguins often live as long as 20 years.
I visited in the afternoon when most of the penguins were sunning or napping. Visitors were quiet and respectful. The penguins were enjoying the sunshine and clear, warm weather. One mellow penguin seemed to be in a meditative state holding a yoga pose :).
Endangered Cormorants and Seabirds
Bank, crowned, white-breasted, and Cape cormorants breed at Stony Point. Endangered cormorants created challenges for the reserve. With the help of community volunteers, it was possible to create a sustaining habitat for them. Cormorants “breed up to three times in summer” and require a nesting habitat with suitable material. The birds found what they needed for their nests in the groundcover growing over brush that promotes penguin breeding.
I watched cormorants sunning on rocks flapping their wings to dry them. Their wingspan is impressive! Seabirds living on the reserve include Grey Herons, Hartlaub’s and Kelp Gulls, and Black Oystercatchers.
Waaygat Whaling Station
From 1913 to 1930, Stony Point was occupied by Waaygat Whaling Station, “a place of terrible cruelty and devastation”. All that remains of the station now are the foundations of buildings, blubber tanks, rail lines, and a slipway.
Whaling at Stony Point was undertaken by three companies who “hunted whales in the seas off Hangklip-Kleinmond and hauled their carcasses to the whaling station for processing. The first year’s catch was 179 whales. Later that increased to over 300 in a season.”
As far back as 1788, British, French, and Americans came to South African waters to hunt the great southern right whale.
Steamboats anchored off the harbour used a winch and rope to pull whales up the slipway onto the cutting plane. Blubber oil went into storage tanks that were later moved to transport ships destined for Europe. During whaling’s heyday, 220 whalers lived in housing at the station.
South African whaling ceased when a 1976 international agreement outlawed it. The whale population today is far from “reaching its estimated numbers before human beings found uses for virtually every whale part and hunted them relentlessly and with extreme cruelty”.
No “official surveys occurred while whales were hunted, but estimates put the original southern right whale population at hundreds of thousands”. Today, the southern right whale population is estimated to be 3000 – 4000.
Una Steam Trawler
In 1926 as part of an attempt to improve whaling conditions in Stony Point Harbour, steam trawler Una from the Irvin & Johnson fleet was sunk to form a jetty alongside the slipway. Today, Una’s rusted stern is still visible with “small fish darting in and out of her plates”.
The Una was well known in Table Bay. “From the cold water and fog of the North Sea to the warm water of the Australian Coast, and finally halfway across the world again to South Africa, all in a space of 36 years – this was the lot of the small, unpretentious ship Una.“
“The Una was a humble little vessel with quite a career.”
Wildfires New Year’s Eve 2019
More than 31 miles of critically endangered Sandstone Fynbos was destroyed by a fire linked to a flare shot on New Year’s Eve in the Overstrand area. The fire started in Betty’s Bay – “the longest town in South Africa, and a place known for its beauty and biodiversity”. It involved three municipalities – Overstrand, Cape Town, and Theewaterskloof. The devastating fires claimed the life of a 59-year-old woman, affected Betty’s Bay, Rooi Els, Hermanus, Pringle Bay, and Kogel Bay, destroyed 31 homes, and damaged 28 structures.
Charred vegetation mars parts of the beautiful drive from Hermanus to Betty’s Bay. Harold Porter National Botanical Garden was damaged heavily but recently reopened. It’s a lovely garden with many favorite hikes.
The fire devastated the center of fynbos in an area where the flora is its richest. The botanical garden “encompasses mountain slopes with flats, deep gorges with relict forests, wind-clipped heathlands, marshes with restios, sedges and bulbs, and beach dunes with specialized salt-adapted plants”.