Simon’s Town is typically billed as a cute weekend getaway just an hours drive out of Cape Town. And if you live in Cape Town that’s exactly what it is. But if you’re an international visitor, Simon’s Town is a destination of its own right, especially if you like penguins and seals.
It’s also the gateway to the Cape of Good Hope.
Simon’s Town is named after Simon van der Stel, governor of the Dutch Cape Colony from 1677 to 1699, who surveyed the site in 1687. Little of note happened however – apart from a few Dutch East Indies Company boats harbouring here whilst working the spice route – until the British Navy took control of the site in 1790. Simon’s Town has been an important naval town ever since.
Boulders Beach is the main drawcard of Simon’s Town, and not for its boulders, even though the granite boulders that litter the beach are quite pretty in themselves. It’s the resident colony of African Penguins that has tourists squeaking with excitement.
African Penguins are a type of banded penguin, and you could be forgiven for assuming they were they same species as the South American banded penguins – the Humboldt Penguin, and the Magellanic Penguin – as they look almost identical.
Ever wondered why penguins have black backs and white tummies?
That patterning didn’t evolve by chance. It’s a camouflage trick called countershading. Penguins are black on the back to camouflage them from predators who are above them in the water and looking down, and white on the belly to camouflage them from predators who are swimming below them in the water and looking up.
In the water African Penguins are preyed upon by sharks, seals, and orcas; on land they are attacked by mongoose, genets, leopards, and domestic cats. Be happy you’re not a penguin.
In 1994 the MV Apollo Sea crashed off the coast of Cape Town, spilling several thousand tonnes of oil into the sea, a tragic pollution event that led to the death of 35 crew and over 5,000 penguins.
Just six years later the MV Treasure sank near Robben Island, Cape Town. This time tens of thousands of volunteers turned up for the recovery effort. 19,000 penguins were collected and cleaned with a survival rate above 90%. It’s regarded as one of the largest animal rescue events of all time.
Seal Island, a 45-minute boat ride from Simon’s Town, is 800 metres long, 50 metres wide, and home to 64,000 Cape Fur Seals.
Male Cape Fur Seals grow to over two metres in length, and can weight between 200 and 300 kilograms. 70% of their diet is made up of fish, the remainder with squid and crabs.
The Cape Fur Seal is a highly prized delicacy of the Great White Shark. Sharks circle the island relentlessly. The ring of death it’s called; and the seals of Seal Island have a brush with death every time they have to leave the island to eat. When the sharks attack they strike upwards with such force they burst from the water, and both shark and seal travel several metres through the air before returning to the sea.
This impressive predatory technique has launched a new tourist activity: shark breaching. Tourists pile in a boat, and go scooting out over the bay, dragging a dead seal behind them. If they’re lucky a Great White Shark will chase them, and leap out of the water again and again in its attempt to catch the dead seal. Local tour operators swear it does the sharks no harm, but little in the way of targeted studies have been completed to date, so the true impacts of this activity are unknown.
Living in the centre of a ring of death has prompted the seals of Seal Island to develop special anti-predatory techniques. It’s common now for seals to leave the island in groups, and to split in multiple directions as soon as they hit the water to confuse the sharks.
If you have rented a car, and are thus able to take accommodation outside of Simon’s Town, I highly recommend choosing a place in Dido Valley with a view out over False Bay. Not only are you treated to great views of the bay, you also get to watch the Middle North Battery naval site fire its cannons into the sea.