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I have a little bit of psychotic episode every time I go to an aquarium.

Part of me is thinking, “You should not be here. You are in some amazing part of the world that few people get to visit, and you should be out seeing unusual and unique things and not staring, slack-jawed, at the same fish you could see at any aquarium, anywhere.”

But a slightly larger part of me is thinking, “OMG. FISHIES.”

And that part always wins out. It’s why I visit so many damn aquariums. How many? Well, enough that I don’t tell you about all of them. That’s right, kids: I keep some things to myself. Like the fact that I’m an aquarium-loving nut.

Plus, you know what? Aquariums are great for jet-lag. I’m actually thinking of heading out to Seattle’s local fish prison (located conveniently on the waterfront, so if anyone plans to make a Nemo-style breakout, they’d not have far to go), since my South Africa trip is still wreaking havoc on my circadian rhythms.

And speaking of South Africa, the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town is quite nice.

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I mean, it’s not life-changing nice. It’s certainly not the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or anything like that. And if you had only one day in Cape Town, I wouldn’t advise that you spend it there because there’s so much else to see.

But the thing is, the Two Oceans Aquarium has penguins.

PENGUINS.

You guys. I flipping love penguins. I’ve wanted a pet penguin since Eleanor got one in The Chipmunk Adventure (parenthetically, the Wikipedia entry about that movie has been flagged for being “too excessively detailed”. Isn’t life amazing? There are actually people who have time to write up a plot summary of The Chipmunk Adventure on Wikipedia, and there are other people who have the time to flag that plot summary as being too detailed. And there are people like me, who have time to write about it all.)

Did you know that penguins don’t just live in cold climates? Africa actually has indigenous penguins. That’s right: in addition to baboons and cheetahs and elephants, Africa gets penguins, too.

So, it’s basically the most magical place in the world, ever.

Two Oceans has about a dozen or so African penguins. Several of them are rescues, while others are the offspring of captive birds. And they are filthy little buggers.

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This guy was walking around, covered in his own crap, like it ain’t no thing. No one else seemed to notice, either.

He’s like the R Kelly of birds.

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They were were smelly and silly and incredibly chill. Since they’re used to their handlers, they don’t mind people at all. You can get pretty up close and personal.

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But you have to resist the urge to pet them, or climb over the little railing so you can hang out with them.

See? They aren’t even afraid of Joel.

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The aquarium frowns on that sort of thing. Except during their Penguin Encounter, when you can do all of that stuff (sadly, this was not an option for us during our visit, as the penguins were molting. But it brings me joy to know that you can cuddle with the stinky little brood of them).

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At some point, their caretaker, pictured above, explained that the birds were trained with positive reinforcement. She asked how we as humans positively reinforced behaviors in children.

I suggested candy. She stared at me, horrified.

“No, no, no. We use affirming words and affection as positive reinforcement,” she said. “Not candy.” She then went on to joke that she hoped I didn’t have children.

Seriously, if I had a nickel for every time someone prayed I wasn’t a parent … I’d have enough to buy more candy.

Anywho, African penguins are not the only variant of the overdressed bird at the aquarium. Two Oceans also has rockhopper penguins. They aren’t native to Africa (the nearest populations are some 2000 km away), and it’s believed that these birds were caught and kept on large fishing boats illegally, and then dumped off the coast of Cape Town. They can’t be returned home for fear of introducing illnesses to their native populations, so after they were rehabilitated, they just stayed at the aquarium.

There’s a penguin viewing gallery that’s half underwater, so during feeding time you can watch them dart in and out of the water.

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Rockhoppers have always creeped me out, just a little. They look kind of angry, and the feathers protruding over their eyes make them seem a little menacing. Like that one guy from DuneSo it pleases me immensely to say that I was able to get a good look at them at Two Oceans. And after seeing them up close and personal like that, you know what I realized?

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They are still really creepy.

Yeah.

There’s more to see at the the aquarium than just penguins, of course.

They have an entire exhibit dedicated to clown fish, that they’ve rather endearingly labeled as “Nemos”.

Someone in the marketing department of Disney is probably cackling like a fiend at the thought of this. We should probably start bowing to our mouse overload right now.

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There are stingrays …

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And urchins …

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And anemones …

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Plus there’s one of those tunnel things that you can walk through with your sweetie …

Good heavens, we look tired, don’t we?

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There was lots more, of course, but I was dealing with some brutal jet-lag, so I don’t really remember much of it. Except for the penguins …

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And really, how could anyone forget them?

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The Essentials on Two Oceans Aquarium, Cape Town, South Africa

  • Verdict: Yes, with caveats – there’s loads to do in Cape Town, so I’m reluctant to tell you to spend a day indoors at an aquarium. But if you have a free afternoon and you love aquatic life (or you’re just too jet-lagged to do anything else), this place is perfect.
  • How to Get There: Cabs are ridiculously cheap in South Africa, so you can take one from your hotel to the Waterfront without too much trouble. Just make sure there’s a meter, or that you agree on a fare beforehand. Or see if your hotel offers a shuttle service.
  • Ideal for: penguin lovers, families, and the jet-lagged.
  • Insider tips: check ahead for when the penguin feeding times are, and see if the Penguin Encounter is open during your visit. You can even book a shark dive.
  • Nearby food: the waterfront is close by, and there’s loads of options. Some of them are a little touristy, but the food is still solid, and the prices are still pretty reasonable (we went to a place called Moyo, which was pretty solid).
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  • Good for kids: Absolutely. This place was crawling with little urchins (of both the aquatic and human variety). There are lots of exhibits that are perfect for kids, including plenty of hands-on stuff. 
Full list of categories:  Attractions » City Guide
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Comments (24)

  1. 11. Feb, 2013 / Al Hayden:

    Hooray for aquarium lovers! Have you been to the New England Aquarium? Not only do they have less-stinky open-air penguins of the rockhopper and African varieties (the keepers scrape the guano off the rocks daily to prevent foot infections), they have Little Blue penguins. Little Blues look like baby penguins even when they’re all grown up. They’re fantastic!! I highly recommend a visit with them to all penguin lovers! (Full disclosure: I used to work there, so I may be a bit biased, but I defy you to look at a live Little Blue and not completely melt….)

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  2. 11. Feb, 2013 / Maritza:

    If you like penguins I hope you went to Boulders Beach in nearby Simons Town… They have a breeding program and the penguins waddle around right there on the beach while you’re swimming! I bet you could even try to cuddle one and no one would care!

    Side note: Cape Town is really the only place you find metered taxis, Joburg taxis are damn expensive!

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  3. 11. Feb, 2013 / Lisa Strader:

    This makes me giggle— if you like penguins, you should just come to the St. Louis Zoo in Missouri, which has a display of Rockhoppers, Gentoo and King Penguins. We also have an underwater viewing tunnel for sea lions. And our zoo is completely free and needs no trip to Africa!

    I’m not a generated ad, I promise. I just love my hometown’s zoo. :)

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  4. 11. Feb, 2013 / Dylan:

    “He’s like the R. Kelly of birds.” Awesome.

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    Divya Reply:

    Hehe, love it!

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  5. 11. Feb, 2013 / Just One Boomer (Suzanne):

    The National Weather Service has now ruined “Nemo” for most New Englanders by bestowing that name on the latest blizzard to incapacitate (and kill people) in that part of the country. WTF? Really, how did they decide that a raging blizzard should be named after a clown fish?

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  6. 11. Feb, 2013 / Ruth:

    Fear of Joels is a learned response. Those penguins just don’t know Joel very well.

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  7. 11. Feb, 2013 / Laura:

    I flipping LOVE penguins! I would happily go to a zoo or aquarium JUST for the penguins… and I’ve done that before too. So you can imagine how disappointed I was when I went to the San Diego Zoo and there weren’t any penguins! None. $45 admission and they can’t get a freaking penguin.

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  8. 11. Feb, 2013 / Kellie:

    Love that you reference The Chipmunk Adventure! I think it was my very first travel inspiration. I feel like I watched it about once a week.

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  9. 11. Feb, 2013 / Tamzin Nel:

    I also really hope you went to Boulders Beach with your love for penguins! It is honestly a life-changing experience. You’re on the beach doing normal beachy things: swimming, tanning eating ice-cream etc BUT there are penguins – hundreds of them – waddling around too doing all those same things. Minus the ice-cream eating I think.

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  10. 12. Feb, 2013 / CatCatAttack:

    Ha ha ha. I’m a parent, and candy is a weapon in the positive reinforcement arsenal. My kid’s teachers always tell us not to send in candy for lunch or snacks. I thought it was for healthy reasons, but after 3 years of elem. school parenting, I’m pretty sure they say that so that the kids will over-value the teacher’s candy. (Defensive statement- I try to feed the little buggers healthy sh*t, and this has the additional benefit of making the candy rewards ALL THE MORE AWESOME and worthy of effort.)

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    Jerusha Reply:

    This is SO TRUE!! We get the same memos about no candy/chocolate in school lunches, and then invariably my kid comes home the same day all excited because they got hot chocolate in the classroom that day.

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    Kristina Cline Reply:

    And then Valentines day party happens and the kids are rolling in cupcakes….

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  11. 12. Feb, 2013 / Andrea:

    I’ve always felt that the rockhopper’s were the douchebags of the penguin world. Which is wierd, because I’m pretty sure that Scamper the Penguin’s friend was a rockhopper.

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  12. 12. Feb, 2013 / Jam @icoSnap:

    The African Penguins are so cute! I haven’t seen one in person, hopefully I can visit this zoo ^_^

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  13. 12. Feb, 2013 / desi Traveler:

    Just yesterday I was watching Mr. Poppers Penguins and today I got to read this post, it seems I have some Penguin Karma happening…. :)

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  14. 12. Feb, 2013 / Mrs. ManyHats:

    My heart is absolutely delighted that I’m not the only person on the planet who has wanted a penguin ever since Eleanor received hers in that teeny tiny box! That cartoon film also placed within me a desire to where sombreros and dance with cobras neither of which would be flattering in the slightest.

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  15. 12. Feb, 2013 / Mandy:

    You know in Fiji the snorkel guides would call the clown fish “nemo fish” too! I guess it’s a lot more fun to say than plain old clown fish…

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  16. 13. Feb, 2013 / Hayley McLellan:

    Oh this is so hilariously written – well done! I am the penguin keeper and I SO remember you saying “Candy”! I truly enjoyed your honesty…! Tx for the giggle that day! And for promoting penguins so passionately.

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    Everywhereist Reply:

    Thank you for introducing us to the wonderful penguins! They were great. :)

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  17. 18. Feb, 2013 / cat:

    “Omg fishies” that’s great lol. I like going.to zoos and aquariums and seeing all the animals too :)

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  18. 23. Feb, 2013 / Sarah@UncagedTraveler:

    Science nut here, and I think aquariums are a perfectly dandy and educational way to spend your traveling time. “OMG fishes!” is right. :)
    And it’s fine to reinforce positive behavior with candy; as long as they’re not your kids.

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  19. 25. Feb, 2013 / Kristen.:

    Oh wow, I never could place where my obsession with having a penguin came from and now it seems so obvious (Chipmunk Adventure). Now if only I could get my hands on a stuffed animal filled with cash….

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  20. 28. Feb, 2013 / ANISA:

    Omg! The R Kelly of birds! Stop it! I can’t stop laughing!
    I agree about the penguins. I love them. They are one of my favorites at the zoo. Along with the elephants and giraffes. I got see Fiordland crested penguins in New Zealand. Awesome!
    Great post. Keep me laughing!!

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