Dassen Island – African Penguin Haven

Home to some 68,000 African penguins, Dassen Island is located in the Atlantic Ocean around 55 kilometers north of Cape Town and 9 kilometers off the coastline near the West Coast village of Yzerfontein. The island is also home to a functioning lighthouse that has been serving as a beacon for seafarers since it was built in 1893, warning them to be cautious along this treacherous stretch of coastline that is often enshrouded in mist and has claimed a number of victims. Before the building of the lighthouse, shipwrecks were common in this area and the island derives its name from the rock rabbits (dassies) that were released there as a food source for shipwreck survivors.

Scattered with huge granite boulders and featuring patches of bedrock along the shoreline, Dassen Island’s 273 hectares is mostly flat and sandy, experiencing a Mediterranean climate, with summers being warm and dry, and rainfall in winter. The flora of the island consists of hardy shrubs and grasses, supporting a surprisingly diverse range of animals, in addition to the famed African penguins. In recent years, five reptile species have been recorded on the island, including the Angulate tortoise, Gronovi’s dwarf burrowing skink and marbled leaf-toed gecko, while feral cats, European rabbits and rock hyrax (dassies) may also be found there.

Dassen Island is an important breeding ground for African penguins, which were moved from “Vulnerable” to “Endangered” status by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in June 2010, due primarily to the threat of oil spills, as well as competition with commercial fisheries and other birds for food resources. Other birds found on Dassen Island include crowned cormorants, bank cormorants, Cape cormorants, white-breasted cormorants, swift terns, kelp and Hartlaub’s gulls, Leach’s storm petrels, African black oystercatchers and white pelicans. Dassen Island is one of only two places where white pelicans are known to breed and the island is home to around 500 pairs of the large predatory birds that are known to eat the chicks of other island residents.

The waters around Dassen Island are rich in kelp forests and floating phytoplankton, attracting a variety of marine creatures and birds to the area. Although the island is a nature reserve and not open to the public, tours around the island by boat offer visitors the opportunity to view the whales, seals and dolphins in these waters, as well as the enormous flocks of birds that live on Dassen Island off the West Coast of South Africa.