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Penguin Town: Series Review

“Six hot months! One wild colony! No rules!”

An eight-part docuseries about the six months that African penguins spend in their annual breeding time in Simon’s Town, South Africa. It shows them coming ashore, forming pair bonds, establishing nests, and raising – or not raising – their families.

African penguins are about two feet tall, with patches of pink near their eyes, and instead of living in Antarctica, they breed in Africa. This endangered species is known by several different names, including Cape penguins, South Africa penguins, black-footed penguins and even jackass penguins. They earned this last name because the sound they make is so similar to a donkey’s bray. If you watch the series, you’ll hear that sound a lot.

The docuseries is done, as much as possible, from the penguins’ point of view. This means that the cameras are usually shot from lower levels, and somehow the crew got the cameras into multiple nests, because there are terrific shots of the nesting birds with their eggs and chicks. Creation of the series was assisted by the fact that penguins, because their legs are so short, don’t want a long commute between the nest and the ocean; this means that the territory to be covered by the camera crew was relatively small (nevertheless, plenty of kudos for doing it). Humans, when they make it into a scene, are usually shown from the thigh down and are referred to as the “giants”.

The penguins’ events are narrated by Patton Oswalt, with interpretations that make what is going on clear. After all, inexperienced observers may not understand the significance of several penguins staring at each other. Are they courting? Preparing for combat? Shooting the breeze about fish? Although we’re inexperienced, those narrating are not, and the interpretations given are borne out by future consequences.

Another problem for viewers is that penguins are really hard to tell apart, and we simply have to have faith that the camera crew can do so. (Are the penguins secretly tagged or marked?) The show helps the viewers by giving the penguins names based on the locations of their nests and/or hang-outs. Hence we have Mr. and Mrs. Bougainvillea, Mr. and Mrs. Culvert, Mr. and Mrs. Wheelbarrow, Lord and Lady Courtyard, and the Car Park Gang. There’s also an injured individual, Junior, who is standing on the seashore, trying to complete his first molt, when he is taken by rescuers in for rehabilitation. The camera crew put a camera into one of the boxes so we could experience Junior’s rescue from his point of view.

Although this is told from the penguin point of view, the human world is always around them, as the penguins hide under cars, go up and down stairs (they have to jump because their little legs are so short) and make their nests in Simon’s Town. At some point they must have nested on rocky cliffs, but these penguins have adapted to human conditions. Lord and Lady Courtyard choose to make their nest in the back of a house, which means they have to enter through the front door and waddle through to the back. Fortunately for Lord and Lady Courtyard – perhaps some agreement with either the film crew or those in charge of endangered species was involved? – the owners of the house always keep the front and back doors open.

Despite the “giants” being around all the time, the penguins don’t seem especially interested in us. Most of their attention is given to other penguins: mates, chicks, enemies, and cohorts for fishing expeditions. There are few interactions with other species, such as sea lions and seagulls. As part of this was filmed during the height of the pandemic in 2020, the other species are more prominent than usual – the giants are staying in their homes, leaving the streets to other creatures – and there’s even a caracal hunting penguins! She seems most incompetent, however, because we never see her catching any, and catching penguins with such tiny legs seems really easy. Perhaps the film crew decided not to show it?

Although the audience is for 7+ (I am many decades beyond 7), it’s not just for kids, and there are some tough moments, although no graphic violence. Warning: potential spoilers, but the sort of spoilers you will find in many nature documentaries. Penguin Town includes the courtship and even the mating of penguin pairs, but this is so far from human sexuality that even the most prudish won’t bother to avert their eyes. However, life is not easy for these little birds. They are threatened by predators and by other penguins. They suffer in the heat. One couple makes a grave mistake in its choice of nest (however, an egg is rescued by giants). And, saddest of all, one penguin never returns from its daily fishing expedition, leaving the other parent with all the responsibilities of feeding two chicks. But a cohort of blues – that’s the term for the young of these penguins – makes it to the shore at the end of the season, preparing themselves to dive into the ocean.

Here’s a quick overview of the episodes, each about 30 minutes long:
  • Homecoming: the penguins return to shore, form pairs and make their nests
  • The Nest Generation: follows several nesting couples, while Junior is rescued.
  • Hot and Bothered: the heat of the South African summer is hard to bear for these penguins.
  • Lost and Found: one penguin never returns from fishing.
  • Close Encounters: two late-nesting penguins discover they’re living with giants.
  • Weekend Warriors: the Wheelbarrows have to kick out their juveniles because they plan a second set of eggs.
  • Beyond the Nest: some of the young penguins start to explore.
  • Learning to Fly: of course, more about swimming than flying.

Overall rating

I expect some stories did not make the cut, either because they were too depressing or because the footage did not pan out (it’s hard to get penguins to re-do scenes). Nevertheless, Penguin Town is entertaining and informative. Three and a half out of four penguin eggs.

Note the caracal picture was from Wikipedia and was taken by Derek Keats.

Victoria Grossack loves math, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms. And for this review I’m going to direct your attention to the Crow Nickels, the chronicles about crows who want to save the planet, which starts with Hunters of the Feather and continues with Scavengers of Mind.

3 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Victoria, thanks for this. The show sounds charming and very informative. Although I'm probably one of the viewers that would get too upset at how hard life is for these little guys.

Victoria Grossack said...

The anticipation is much worse than what actually happens. I do hope more people view it.

Anonymous said...

If you really love these little guys, come to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. They have a conservation partnership with SANCCOB, and manage the largest colony in North America.

Sooze