Dassen Island: In Kearton’s footsteps

It’s almost ninety years since naturalist Cherry Kearton once set foot on this very spot. I look out over the calm waters of House Bay and catch the reflection of gulls darting above. Their shrieks and cries are amplified by the surrounding silence, broken only by the waves crashing against the island’s rocky coastline.

The narrow beach in front of me has been isolated for years. Stretching out towards Boom Point on my left and the wreck of an old fishing vessel on my right are chalk-white sands that know little more than the careful footsteps of the seabirds who inhabit them. In the direction of the wrecked vessel I can see Crowned cormorants nesting elusively amidst the rust and overgrowth, and a small group of African penguins start to gather in the far off corner of the beach after a long day at sea.

Dassen Island was the first of South Africa’s inshore islands to have a publicly released conservation plan, and remains an important breeding sanctuary for a variety of endangered seabirds. My interest in the island was sparked through Cherry Kearton’s Island of Penguins – a humorous and heartfelt account of his stay in the 1920’s, when the island was home to over a million African penguins. After months of research in which I learnt about the tragic oil spills of the Apollo Sea and MV Treasure, as well as the dire situation that the island’s inhabitants have found themselves in today, I finally heard from conservation manager Johan Visagie that there was a chance of seeing it all for myself – and the opportunity to retrace Kearton’s footsteps.

By the time Kearton made it to Dassen Island he was well established in field of wildlife documentary, and had an impressive list of innovations to boast. He was the first to compile a photographic anthology of birds, the first to use camouflage to capture intimate images of animals in the wild, and the first to film aerial landscapes from an airplane. Kearton was such a big figure in his time that he even inspired David Attenborough, who attended one of his talks on wildlife filmmaking, to follow in his footsteps.

But with Attenborough thousands of kilometres back home in England, Kearton and his wife Adda Forrest – a singer he had met in South Africa – had Dassen Island bobbing in full view. They watched it from the bow of a local West Coast fishing vessel, separated by a rough passage of ocean. Without the small wooden jetty that stands on the island today, the only access to the island would be via a small paddle boat lowered from the main vessel at sea. And so like Gulliver – a figure Kearton would later compare himself to – they were churned out of rough seas with their few belongings into a peculiar land ruled by little people: in this case they wore neat black suites, white shirts and “tiny black hobble skirts.”

During his stay on Dassen Island Kearton spent months documenting the habits of the African penguin. Although he liked the name “nature’s little comedians,” he was well aware that African penguins lived difficult and often tragic lives. Even as far back as the 1920’s Kearton was concerned that the population size on the island had come to a halt. I still struggle to imagine what he might have thought if he had to see the island today.

Years of guano scraping have removed the fertile layer of guano that the penguins use to build their nests. When the guano scraping finally came to an end the old lime-washed Guano Scraper’s Quarters scattered around House Bay were converted to help with the collection of penguin eggs, following the commercialization of the penguin egg industry. This had drastic consequences for the penguin population, with an estimate of thirteen million eggs being collected between 1900 and 1930 alone. It was not until the 60’s that egg collection came to an end. During a conference at the Kruger National Park Kearton’s photographs of the island taken during his stay in the 20’s were compared to more recent images. The result: an official ban on egg collecting in 1967.

Jump forty five years ahead and I am standing looking out over the still shores of Dassen Island. A cold wind comes in from the south and the waves crash over Boom Point, a narrow stretch of land to the north that shelters House Bay from the rough Atlantic ocean. From the jetty Kelp gulls watch for shimmers on the sea that might signal a passing school of fish, while sterns dot the sand and Whitefronted plovers run across the beach like little ghosts.

In the far corner of the bay I watch the small group of penguins start to grow as the evening comes in and others emerge from behind the waves. There are at most twenty, gathering below a steep boulder that has been bleached yellow by the sea and the sun. In my mind is an image of Kearton’s where thousands of penguins are scattered across the length of this exact beach, and it makes me think of how drastically things have changed. But it’s not long before I catch the sight of another penguin coming ashore from behind the waves. He swims gracefully until he can run, and when he can run he picks himself up with his small back legs and runs like hell.

When he finally makes it to safety – the waves crashing against the shore now a reasonable distance behind him – he stops for a moment to straighten out his neat little suit. Eventually satisfied, he wobbles over to the others waiting by the boulder at the end of the beach.

It reminds me that even though the waters around Dassen Island are overfished, and a population of over a million penguins has been reduced to just over eight thousand, somehow these birds, who still seem quite happy to share the long walk home together in each other’s company, still have their way of cheering one up. And I can’t help but think that’s the reason Kearton grew so fond of nature’s little “comedians.”

Article Credit: http://www.getaway.co.za/wildlife/animal-stories/dassen-island-keartons-footsteps-2
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Dassen Island Nature Reserve

Dassen Island Nature Reserve

Dassen Island lies in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 55km north west of Cape Town and 9km off Yzerfontein. It is South Africa’s second largest Island, after Robben Island in Table bay. The Island was proclaimed a nature reserve in 1987 and Is managed by Cape Nature Conservation, primarily to protect its seabird colonies. Public visits are limited, because of the sensitive nature of the seabirds.

Ecology and History

The ecology of small island is often dynamic. Natural fluctuations of plant and animal populations, in addition to a long history of human disturbance, have so altered Dassen Island that there is uncertainty about its original species.

The island was named by Dutchman Van Spilbergen in 1601, after dassies which evidently occurred in abundance. Early records describe the island as covered in plants about two meters tall, and riddled with burrows in which penguins bred.

During the mid-17th century the island functioned as an outpost of the Dutch East India Company. Seals, birds and fish were caught to supply the settlement at the Cape. Sheep, pig and rabbit farming was also attempted, but was unsuccessful due to the shortage of fresh water. The Island still has a large population of now-wild rabbits which overgraze the spars vegetation, particularly during the summer months. Large numbers of Cape Fur seals used to breed on the  island, but were hunted extensively for meat and fur from the 17th century until the mid-20th century and are now rarely seen.

During the mid 1840’s the island’s guano cover was removed for use in fertilisers. From 1870 until 1967 penguin eggs were exploited for public consumption. This practice reached a peak in 1919, when almost 600 000 fresh eggs were collected from the island. It is estimated that the penguin population had to have been about 400 000 to have produced this number of eggs. In the early 1990’s the penguin population had fallen to around 25 000 birds, demonstrating the devastating effect of egg collection. The penguin colonies have since been stabilised, aided by the Island’s status as a nature reserve.

House mice were accidentally introduced and later cats were brought to control the mice, but also fed on birds and rabbits. Angulate tortoises, originally from the mainland, and guinea fowl-brought as eggs from Robben Island – also occur on Dassen Island. Management of the Island includes control of these alien animal species. 

Dassen Island Nature Reserve


The Cape’s west coast has been a busy shipping lane for several centuries and the rough seas have claimed countless ships and lives. Dassen Island’s lighthouse, reputedly the most isolated manned lighthouse on the South African coast, was built in 1893 and stands on the southern and highest point of the island. Nevertheless, the island remains a danger to ships and small craft, and several rusting and rotting shipwrecks litter its coastline. The 1994 sinking of the Apollo sea. A bulk ore carrier near Dassen Island and the resultant oil spill caused environmental damage to the island and threatened its penguin population.


Dassen Island’s most significant animals are the seabirds, particularly the large populations of African penguin, white pelican, African black oystercatcher, three species of cormorant, and kelp gull. In addition Egyptian geese, sacred ibis, Cape wagtail, Hartlaub’s gull and swift tern breed on the island in smaller numbers. Pelagic species, including Antarctic terns, Sabine’s gull skuas and white chinned petrel occasionally visit the island, and despite some human presence, the birds are far better protected than on the mainland.

The breeding seasons of the various seabird species are staggered through the year and their colonies are scattered over the entire island. The birds are extremely sensitive when breeding- even the slightest disturbance may cause the abandon their nests, giving marauding gulls and ibises to take eggs or small chicks. For this reason public access to the island is limited and strictly controlled.

(Cape Nature conservation 11/1997)



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