Pete the penguin leads the way back to Robben Island

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The Independent Online

Peter the penguin is home, after an epic adventure to Port Elizabeth and back. A rescue of thousands of penguins from an oil spill three weeks ago off Robben Island on the west coast of South Africa took them by truck to the east coast town, from where they have had to swim 470 miles to return home.

Peter the penguin is home, after an epic adventure to Port Elizabeth and back. A rescue of thousands of penguins from an oil spill three weeks ago off Robben Island on the west coast of South Africa took them by truck to the east coast town, from where they have had to swim 470 miles to return home.

Satellite pictures of Peter and his fellow African penguins, Percy and Pam, who were tagged by scientists at the University of Cape Town, have been watched by bird lovers the world over as they "raced" to retrace their journey.

Peter won but no one witnessed the end of the race because stormy seas meant that ferries to Robben Island were cancelled. Scientists will soon try to locate him in the thick bush where the penguins nest. Saturday is an official "welcome home penguin" day.

The adventures of Peter, Percy and Pam began when the bulk carrier Treasure sank off Cape Town on 23 June, spilling tons of fuel oil that washed up on Robben Island and neighbouring Dassen Island, threatening two-fifths of the population of African penguin, an endangered species.

Most of the 76,000 penguins were removed from the islands by Cape conservation organisations, in the world's biggest bird rescue. Had the penguins been left to wander into the oil, they would probably have died from poisoning or lack of insulation.

It was decided to take about 20,000 clean penguins by truck to Port Elizabeth, to release them into the sea at Cape Recife on the east coast and to allow them to swim home, in the hope (now realised) that by the time they had reached the west coast islands, the oil spill would have cleared.

Some 23,000 penguins already coated in oil are being cleaned and cared for in Cape Town and other coastal rehabilitation centres run by the South African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds.

Penguins have a strong homing instinct and are believed to use different navigational tools, which include interpreting the earth's geo-magnetic field and reading the sun and the stars. But there were anxious moments, and many of the penguins are not expected to make it back through stormy seas in which sharks feed.

Peter, who began his journey on 30 June, was the first of the three penguins to be equipped with satellite transmitters and released. Professor Les Underhill, from the avian demography unit at the University of Cape Town, which tracked the penguins, said yesterday: "At 4.56am, Peter's satellite tag reported that he was at 33 48 S 18 22 E. Wait a moment. Those are the co-ordinates for Robben Island. Peter is home. He is probably puzzled to be missing a lot of his neighbours.

"The fact that we are likely to come through this disaster losing less than 1 per cent of the world African penguin population and not 40 per cent is due to the amazing and committed response of a vast number of people."

Peter had a head start over Pam and Percy, who were released on 3 and 5 July. So he was expected to win, despite swimming at a leisurely 1.0mph compared with Percy's swift 1.5mph. Yesterday, Percy was a few days from home as his nest, Dassen Island, is further up the coast. Pam, meanwhile, is in no rush: she was south of the De Hoop Nature Reserve yesterday and still many days from home.

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