A day in the life of a SANCCOB volunteer

Aaand I’m back. I know, it’s been a little while, but I recently moved on from my “volunteership” at SANCCOB (cue quiet sobs) to pursue an internship in the advertising world (YAAASS) and I’ve been a very busy/tired little bee. Anyway.

Speaking of SANCCOB (the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds), I wanted to give some insight into what it’s like to spend some time volunteering there and hopefully inspire you to do the same (or something similar).

With winter morning views like this, who wouldn’t want to get to work at 8am?

A day in the life of a SANCCOB volunteer starts, like most days in most lives, with a rather early wake up. We’d all waddle into the Cape Town centre in Table View, a motley crew of different nationalities (as one of few South Africans amidst the British and German and American volunteers, I was the decidedly un-foreign one) just before 8am. Or, in my case, race through the gate just as the morning “stand-up”/briefing session began (and then have to stand there like I wasn’t low-key trying to catch my breath after my little morning sprint. Anyway. Giving away all my secrets here). As the winter months crept in, I’d only get to the centre just as the sun was starting to make an appearance. While this might sound torturous, it’s the best way to start the day. The Cape Town centre is positioned with one of the best views in the city – a full-frontal panoramic eyeful of Table Mountain herself, reflecting in the (sometimes) still waters of Rietvlei. I loved standing there for a minute or two, watching the sky change colours as the new day began. And then quickly dash into the morning briefing because #alwayslate.

During this meeting, we’d gather in the centre’s wash bay area, and the daily penguin-tasks would be delegated to the team of volunteers, interns and permanent staff. SANCCOB is an NGO and seabird hospital, known around the world for the excellent work that they do, rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing southern African seabirds that have been injured, oiled, abandoned and found in poor health. The organisation’s main focus is the African penguin, those gorgeous and charismatic seabirds which are unfortunately critically endangered. It is SANCCOB’s mission to reverse the decline of the African penguin population, and conserve other seabirds too. And it is the volunteers’ mission to help them do so.

On my first day, I was warned that volunteers need to be prepared and willing to work hard – and they weren’t kidding. Clad in “oil skins” (a dungaree-like overall), Crocs, protective goggles and wet suit sleeves and gloves (so gorgeous), the volunteers spend hours each day preparing plates of fishy food, feeding and cleaning birds, washing down mats, doing laundry loads, carting around boxes and loaded wheelbarrows, scrubbing down the home pen (the “penguin hotel” where some birds that can’t be released back into the wild live) as well as the swimming pools, administering medication and weighing and checking the healthy birds before they can be released. Sounds like tiring work, doesn’t it?

And I didn’t do any of it. I got to have a sliiightly different, albeit equally rewarding, experience at SANCCOB.

String, a member of SANCCOB’s home pen, waddling all over my Croc-clad feet.
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Dressed and ready (pre-Crocs) for a morning of penguin portrait photography.

SANCCOB is located in my neighbourhood so I’ve known about the organisation and wanted to work with the penguins for years. But, this time around I approached SANCCOB to volunteer within the marketing team and gain some work experience during this #GapYah-ish of mine (otherwise known as Emma’s Year of Not Studying, but Discovering What She Wants to Do With Her Life While Also Earning Cash Dollah and Saving Up and Travelling the World and Trying Not to Have Daily Panic Attacks). And, at the same time, I’d be contributing to a cause close to my heart – marine conservation.

I mainly functioned as a photographer, copywriter and social media -er (if that wasn’t a word, it is now), and got to participate in some fun events (like the #Waddle2017, which you can read about here), witness film shoots and interviews and to meet some amazing and inspiring people from all over the world with all different backgrounds. I learnt so so so much in the 6 months that I was there – about myself, about the working world, about others and, of course the penguins. Most of all, it was an eye-opener to get a behind-the-scenes look into all the time, energy, heartache, headaches, and PASSION that goes into promoting and fundraising for such an important organisation. It was amazing to witness and I’m lucky to have been welcomed so warmly into the SANCCOB family and to have taken part in something like this – something so much bigger than myself. While I didn’t always work directly with the birds, I still feel like I helped make a difference to the cause – even if it’s a teeny tiny one.

Sure, volunteering with any organisation is hard work, and there are going to be those heartbreaking moments when things don’t go to plan. But, it will also be the most rewarding experience of your life. One of my most memorable moments during my 6-month stint happened as I tipped over a cardboard box of rescued and rehabilitated penguins on to the jetty at Betty’s Bay. I stood and watched as they waddled back into the wild where they belong, taking to the ocean as if they’d never left. I almost cried all the happy tears.

If you were ever having any doubts about volunteering with SANCCOB (or any other NGO for that matter), just do it (here is the link to SANCCOB in case you needed any more motivation). The best part about volunteering is that you can use your unique talents, skills, and passions while at the same time giving back to society. In my case, I got to develop my love for photography and writing while at SANCCOB. But, I’ve also had the opportunity to get in my much-loved daily exercise (I mean, we know by now I’m obsessed with hiking) while walking doggos at the animal rescue organisation TEARS. You too could work with penguins or walk dogs or play with puppies and kittens or build a home or cook a meal or hang out with kids or teach eager students or just be a friend to someone in need. There are so many worthwhile organisations in South Africa (that focus on all kinds of important social and environmental causes) and they’re always looking for an extra pair of helping hands. Mandela Day is celebrated this Tuesday (18 July) in honour of Nelson Mandela and the incredible impact he made on South Africa and the rest of the world. On this day, we’re encouraged to take action and make a positive difference, big or small, in our communities too. This also makes it the ideal opportunity to start giving back in whatever way you can. I promise you won’t regret it.

Let me know in the comments below if you’re ever volunteered with an amazing organisation, or if you’ve got anything exciting planned for Mandel Day on Tuesday. I’d love to hear from you!

Snapshots from the last leg of the #Waddle2017, a multi-day awareness walk in aid of the endangered African penguin species and marine conservation.
The last leg of the #Waddle2017 consisted of a 15km route from Muizenburg to Simons Town, and followed the Southern line of Cape Town’s railway. With views like this, the time and distance simply flashed by.
Rocky (1)
Rocky, the resident Northern Rockhopper penguin at SANCCOB. Did you know you can ‘adopt’ a SANCCOB penguin, and help the organisation care for these birds in their new home away from home? Head on over to their website here to find out how!


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A beautiful day for a penguin release at Stony Point in Betty’s Bay, home to one of the largest African penguin colonies in the Western Cape.
Boxed up and ready for release…
Cameras on cameras on cameras.
Can you imagine the excitement?? We opened the boxes, faced them towards the ocean, gently tipped them over…
…and watched as 6 more penguins returned to their natural home like they’d never left.
These charismatic African penguins are distinguished by their black facial “masks”, spotty chests, pink-crested eyes and those adorable black feet.

Until next time xx



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