The Great Penguin Race: Michaela Strachan on stinking of fish and wading through bird poo

UKTV's new show sees the Autumnwatch presenter help a Cape Town seabird rescue centre bolster the endangered penguin population

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“You have to grab these penguins behind the head before they have a chance to peck you,” explains wildlife expert Michaela Strachan, the star of UKTV’s new nature show The Great Penguin Race (8pm, November 27, on Eden).  “You have to be quite strong with them and rough with them,” continues Strachan, as she recounts the penguin feeding process. “Ram them between your legs so you get their flippers so they’re not flapping and pull their heads back, open their beaks with your fingers, while they’re trying to close your fingers with the strength of pliers, and then shove a fish down.” It’s fair to say Strachan will be taking a hands on approach in her new six-part series.

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Set against a beautiful Cape Town backdrop, where Strachan now lives fulltime with her cameraman partner Nick Chevallier, the pair sign up to help the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) chick bolstering project.

“Few people know that there are penguins in Africa,” says Strachan, “and fewer people realise they are endangered.” The penguin numbers in this area of the world have dramatically reduced due to the lack of availability of food – the fish have moved due to climate change and competition with commercial fisheries. Plus the amount of seal predators has increased. Meanwhile, further threats in the area include potential oil spills. “The Treasure Oil Spill, in the year 2000, affected 40,000 penguins. That would probably be all the penguins left now,” explains Strachan.


Visit Cape Town with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details


To help grow the penguin population, Strachan and her team went around stealing baby penguins. “A lot of these chicks are born too late to be successful,” explains Strachan. “That’s partly because the adults have started moulting already, once they moult they can’t fish and the chicks starve.” The centre and their volunteers collect all the late born chicks, rehabilitate them and put them back into the wild to boost the colony’s numbers. Simple. Well, that is before you take into account the pecking, constant smell of fish and mountains of poo.

“The adults are feisty,” Strachan recalls, “all the adults want to do is peck you. It’s painful, really painful. Your fingers get completely blistered and sore and weepy because they’re covered,” she says. “One volunteer got pecked so badly she passed out.” When you get used to the handling, there are other occupational hazards to watch out for. “You stink of fish the whole time,” she chuckles, “and if you’re unlucky you get put on mat cleaning duty – there is just masses of shit. Absolutely, piles of poo.”

It’s exactly this that makes the show so entertaining to watch. Not only do the comical birds look like men in suits waddling around, they offer hilarious moments of light relief amid a very serious conservation message. “I was holding a penguin up to check its feathers, and it did this projectile poo onto my partner Mick, who was filming. It landed just in his crotch area. I thought that was brilliant,” laughs Strachan. “It’s a very entertaining programme.”

It’s Christmas time that the SANCCOB centre is most desperate for volunteers – hence the timeliness of this series – and anyone can enrol to help in the fight against the extinction of African penguins. “There are these poor people who work there doing ridiculous hours looking after 400 penguins – but anyone can sign up to help,” urges Strachan. She offers us her top spots to see these incredible black and white creatures in Cape Town:

Michaela Strachan’s top spots to see penguins in Cape Town:

Boulders Beach

Michaela says: “It’s very open to the public, but you have to pay because it’s a national park. However, it’s a fantastic place to see African penguins. Right near the boardwalks you can sunbathe and swim with the penguins. It’s not guaranteed, but if you happen to be swimming when a penguin is swimming, then you are swimming with a penguin! It’s really cool. I still do it and can’t quite believe that we’re allowed to do it. But you have to respect them, because they can turn around and peck you.”

Betty’s Bay

Michaela says: “This is a fantastic colony, about half an hour out of town. For me it’s much wilder than Boulders. Probably because every single time I go there it’s windy. I just love it. It’s also a colony that’s doing well.”

The Great Penguin Race starts at 8pm on November 27, on Eden


Visit Cape Town with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details


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