St Croix in Port Elizabeth is home to the largest African penguin colony in the world. It lies 4 km offshore between the Coega and Sundays River mouths, part of a group of coastal island clustered roughly into two groups of three islands each.
Did you know? St Croix, along with Bird Island (and Robben and Dassen islands on the west coast), is part of an experiment to study the effects of fishing on penguin breeding and foraging behaviour.
St Croix, a 12 ha rocky island, lies close to the smaller Jahleel and Brenton Rocks. It is made up of a series of quartzitic outcrops that rise as high as 53 metres on St Croix.
The island is almost entirely devoid of soil today although this was not always the case. Historical references paint a different picture of the island as 'brown with seawolves (seals) and white with birds' in 1575. It took just four years during the 1820s to annihilate the seals.
As with Dassen Island, penguin eggs by the thousand were removed for human consumption halting only around 1956. And guano harvesting resulted in all its soil finding its way onto foreign ships to serve elsewhere as fertilizer.
Today St Croix is a penguin sanctuary. Boats are not allowed to land on the group of islands, although some charter boats cruise close enough to enable one to see the penguins quite easily.
Fishing exclusion zones have been put in place 20km around the islands, with three years on and three years off, to see the effect on the penguins. The islands are studied in pairs to control for any variation in findings. But preliminary findings suggest that the fishing exclusion zones are good for the penguins on St Croix, but not for the penguins on the west coast.
Did you know? Alongside the 22 000 penguins St Croix Island Marine Reserve supports, one also often spots Cape fur seals, sharks, dolphins and a variety of seabird life.
St Croix and its two sister islets – Jahleel Island and Brenton Rock - are quartzitic outcrops of the Table Mountain Group, almost entirely devoid of soil. They form the base of the largest breeding colony of African penguins on the planet.
There is another set of three islands in close proximity known as the Bird Island group. Collectively the six islands are considered important because they are the only islands along the stretch of coastline between Cape Agulhas and Inhaca Island in Mozambique. Combined they provide a surface area of 40 hectares.
St Croix is small at only 12 hectares in size. Yet alongside the 22 000 penguins it supports one also often spots Cape fur seals, sharks, dolphins and a variety of seabird life - Cape gannets, white-breasted cormorants, African black oystercatchers and rock pigeon.
The St Croix group and a 300 metre maritime zone around each island became an island marine reserve in 1981, originally as part of what was then the Woody Cape Nature Reserve. The Woody Cape Nature Reserve, with the islands, was later incorporated into the Addo National Elephant Park, which now boasts the 'big seven' as a result.
Conservationists are outspoken about the threat to this group of islands. There are very few growing colonies of penguins in the world. This particular one has increased steadily over the last century probably because penguins from other colonies on the decline are relocating here.
They, and the seabirds of the St Croix group, are considered under threat from the Ngqura deep water port. Visitors are not encouraged although there are charter boats for penguin viewing and the seas around St Croix are considered excellent dive sites.
For more information or to book a trip to the island see - https://www.raggycharters.co.za/listing/whale-dolphin-penguin-island-cruise