Cape Town -160422 . Nearly recovered penguins play in the pre-departure area of the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary in Kleinbaai, Gansbaai. reporter: Tara Longardner. Pic: Jason Boud
Cape Town -160422 . Nearly recovered penguins play in the pre-departure area of the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary in Kleinbaai, Gansbaai. reporter: Tara Longardner. Pic: Jason Boud
LEADER: Wilfred Chivell, founder of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, beneath Suzy, the skeleton of a southern right whale in the Great White House, Kleinbaai.   Picture: Kevin Ritchie
LEADER: Wilfred Chivell, founder of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, beneath Suzy, the skeleton of a southern right whale in the Great White House, Kleinbaai. Picture: Kevin Ritchie

IT’S A Thursday night at the Great White House in Kleinbaai. There’s a festive air to proceedings and the bar’s doing good business.

Beneath “Suzy”, the beautifully preserved skeleton of a southern right whale and the bony frames of its two companion dolphins, a larger-than-life character is being lauded for his decade-long quest to save the African penguin.

There were a million of them in 1920. Less than 2 percent remain today. Wilfred Chivell is their unlikely saviour.

Big, bluff and burly, Chivell is someone who knows all about imminent extinction – he lost everything he had in 1998. A native of Gansbaai, the little fishing town on the other side of Hermanus in the Western Cape, Chivell had built up a successful little business empire after a chequered career that took him from a stint in the police to diamond diving on the West Coast and discovering that he had no taste for the bright lights of Cape Town.

Coming home with R2 000 in his pocket and assisted by one man, he mixed cement for builders. By 1998, he had five companies and employed 200 people.

He lost it all in three months. His wife moved out. The sheriff took what was left: his car and his home and the remaining businesses.

“It was a horrible time in my life. I had a little boat, 6.5m, and I went back to what I knew so well, taking tourists on trips out to sea.”

He did that for two years, criss-crossing the great white shark capital of the world, the seas he’d grown up swimming and diving in.

Then the government announced its intention to issue whale-watching licences. Chivell duly applied to Marine and Coastal Management.

When he hadn’t heard anything, he drove through to Cape Town and forced a meeting with an official who admitted no one had even looked at his application.

Disgusted, Chivell drove home and phoned then-minister of environmental affairs Valli Moosa. He got as far as his secretary, who asked him to fax it through. Chivell waited two weeks, heard nothing, phoned again and faxed it again.

“One morning, in my borrowed house, I got up and went through to the lounge. There was nothing there, just a chair and a fax machine. There was a piece of paper lying on the floor. ‘Minister Moosa has approved…’. It changed my life for ever.”

By 2003, he was starting to get his head above water, but his run-ins with the department continued. Chivell had noticed the plight of the African penguins, particularly those caught in oil spills on Dyer Island, just off Kleinbaai.

There were not enough nests, because of the depredations of guano harvesters, so he started building artificial ones. He wanted to know more about what was happening to the penguin colony, but the government couldn’t help.

“I thought ‘Bugger you, I’ll start my own research.' We need to know the animals we work with, we need to understand them better so we can contribute to their conservation by influencing the government to manage the species.”

At the same time, Chivell also decided to extend his seasonal six-month whale-watching business to incorporate shark diving to provide a year-round income. He was joined by Alison Towner, a 21-year-old marine biologist who came from the UK to study great whites.

By 2006, the cost of building nests on Dyer Island out of his own pocket was becoming prohibitive, so Chivell launched the Dyer Island Conservation Trust.

“We were working with public money, so we had to.”

The next major turning point came five years ago when Volkswagen started backing the trust.

“Gansbaai is not Hermanus,” he said. “It’s not Joburg or Cape Town. If you want credibility, you have to be 20 times as good as the next guy.”

The corporate sponsorship lent that credibility.

“I’m not good with people,” Chivell said. “Often I just want to hide, but one Friday afternoon, I couldn’t. There was this guy at the Great White House waiting for me and Brenda (Walters, the trust’s manager) kept chasing me, saying, ‘You have to see this guy.’ ”

So Chivell did and discovered the man was there to make a donation – of R1 million.

“He said: ‘I’ll do this on a handshake. I won’t check you out, I assume VW has done that already.’ By Monday afternoon, the money was in the account.”

Last year, the carmaker, in tandem with other corporate sponsors, funded the establishment of the trust’s African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary in Gansbaai to rehabilitate the birds, particularly those from Dyer Island, that have become contaminated with oil from passing ships.

As Trudi Malan, the bird rehabilitation manager, said, a penguin with a oil patch on its feathers is like a scuba diver with a hole in his wetsuit. It takes up to 90 days to rehabilitate the birds, some of which can’t be saved. Stompie, the sanctuary’s permanent resident, lost his feet after becoming entangled in fishing lines.

The birds are under immense threat, first from the loss of the guano needed to make their burrows – but which has been used for centuries as fertiliser. Second, the harvesting of their eggs as delicacies has broken up the monogamous pair bonds of the penguins, delaying further breeding with new partners. Declining fish stocks and marine predators are other threats.

“The loss of the guano has forced penguins to become surface nesters, giving gulls a fly-through McDonald’s, while seals have learnt to take out penguins by ripping out their stomachs for the fish they have caught.”

Malan is a hard-headed pragmatic conservationist.

“I’m not a bunny hugger. I believe in outcomes. Whatever we do must have link-back to and benefit the community.”

The rehabilitation rate is high: 92 percent of the chicks are successfully returned to sea.

“The aim for our rehab process is to get the birds back to breed. We get them in, we stabilise them, get them to their required weight and release them. Our attitude is less is more – fewer staff, less handling, with most of the funding coming in going straight to the birds.”

The process is helped by the fact that penguins do not habituate easily. They’re not cuddly.

“When they come in weak and injured, we can handle them easily, a week later they bite. When they bite, we bleed,” Malan said matter of factly.

The need to stabilise the African penguin population is not just philanthropic.

“They’re an apex species,” said Malan. “This means they indicate that there’s a problem with the ocean if there is one, but more than that, most foreign tourists list penguins as their number two or three attraction for their trip, on their exit from Cape Town airport.”

All the talk of conservation seems to fly in the face of a company running shark-diving tours – which attract the sharks to the boats through chumming (throwing blood and meat overboard) – even if Chivell’s companies are fair trade-registered. The accusation is that chumming upsets the ecosystem and the sharks’ behaviour.

This is precisely what Towner is studying as part of her PhD through Rhodes University. She has put down acoustic monitors in the bay and has been tagging the sharks to monitor their movements.

“We’re finding our large sharks are staying in the area, but going deep. They’re not stupid, they won’t expend the energy they need to get the chum when it won’t feed them.”

Nicole, one of the area’s large great whites, has been found to make the 22 000km round trip to Australia and back every year.

Sharks are under as much threat as the penguins. “We lose 40 sharks off Durban every year because of the nets, but the biggest problem is the Indian Ocean and the fishing there.

“White sharks are remarkable, they’re worth conserving. The young ones are pescavores, the older ones feed on seals. Whale carcasses to them are like Lindt chocolate to me.”

At Chivell’s urging, Towner shifted the strap of her sandal off the bridge of her foot. There was a 10cm, sickle-shaped scar. Towner grimaced: “There’s a lot that you’ll read in the media that’s just not true about white sharks. They’re pretty fussy."

Back in the Great White House, Chivell was regaling the trust’s friends and funders. “I don’t care about people. I only care about those who care about the sea. The best conservation effort we could ever have had for this world was birth control. We get many requests from National Geographic and others to take them out to sea. We always ask, ‘What’s your storyline?’ If they say ‘crazy killers’, we say ‘for sure, but that applies only to humans’.”