My name is Penny. I am a penguin that lives on the West coast of South Africa. I have fluffy thick, grey feathers, but soon I will grow and have a vast white belly and a black back, just like my dad, James, and my mum, Julia.
Today is my birthday. I’m turning one! I want to grow up as quickly as I can so I can explore the endless blue ocean. But mummy tells me I am a troublemaker. She says the sea is full of danger – monstrous dark sharks with sharp jaws and bulging red eyes who prey on us! There are also giant Cape fur sea lions swimming, three times the size of us, hungry for penguin meat! She says someday when I am old enough, I will learn how to swim and catch fish for my own family of troublemakers.
All I can do is stay in between the short branches of my nest and dream of the ocean. It is hot and dry along the beach. Mum watches over me. Today she’s going to hunt down the biggest fish she could find for me. But, dad says, the seas are growing dangerous, and mummy should be more careful in the water.
When mummy waves me goodbye, I see her face over the rocks, sand and sky before she jumps, beak first, into the waves. I ask dad, when will mum be back and he tells me she will be back soon.
“Go and have a nap, Penny. When you wake up, mummy will be back.”
I squeal, nodding my head as funny creatures fly above our head, with black wings and long lettuce green legs. Daddy says they are called kelp gulls, and they are very dangerous as they steal penguin eggs! I look up at the group of birds one last time before dad tucks me under a bundle of dry, golden branches.
I don’t like lying. But I have to do it to keep Penny safe. James lies too. All the adult penguins on this beach have to. When I was a little penguin, my great-grandma told me that the sea was magical and merciful back in her day. Soft, crystal-clear waves bounced on the surface of the water, inviting the strong, adventurous and brave young penguins, like me, and very much like Penny, to take on the seas. I wish to go back to those simpler days.
I am far from my family now, and the sea is dark with trouble. My friend spots me in the water.
“Hey, Julie,” she squeaks,
“Hey, Margie, how are you?” I reply.
“You know how it is. Charlie is growing up so quickly. I can’t keep up with him.”
“My Penny is the same; she’s turning one today. Yesterday I caught her at the edge of the rocks. I nearly had a heart attack.”
“Tell me about it, my Charlie makes me lose my feathers.”
“Well, I better be off. Take care Margie.”
“Thank you, have a wonderful day. See you soon, Julie.”
I see her swimming away, flapping her flippers and wiggling her tail in the water.
Suddenly, a long dark shadow washes over me. I look up and notice a skinny white shark, moving right above Margie.
As the predator comes closer and closer, my heart grows heavier and heavier. I know I have to do something. In the murky silence, I swim quickly and quietly towards my friend. When I reach her, the twig shaped shark is meters above. I swim towards her, and when I reach her, I poke her tail. She notices me immediately.
“Julie, is everything okay?”
My eyes widen as I roll them up and she follows me.
“We have to go,” I signal with my beak.
We go deeper into the water. When we are at a safe distance, Margie embraces me.
“I don’t know how to thank you. Lately, there are starving sharks in every corner.”
I smile, “It’s okay, we need to look out for one another, especially now. Get back home safely.”
The further I swim north, the murkier and thicker the water gets. I feel like someone is pouring litres of petrol down my nose, making my head as heavy as a rock and my eyes as foggy two clouds before a torrential storm.
Soon, I approach a strange, large net floating in the middle of the water, collecting dozens of rotting, ghostly fish. And I hear loud, high-pitched humming sounds. Then, I notice that I am being pulled upwards, with a pool of dead flesh. Within moments, I hear human voices cursing above the water. The smell is foul. How did I get myself in this mess? My stomach drops. I use my flippers to pull apart the hellish structure, but it’s too sharp. I begin to tug the fibre string with my beak until I snap it and the string tears. At the last minute, I manage to climb out of the nest. I freeze for a second, having escaped death. Penny and James jump into my mind. That was a close call. I can’t let that happen again.
Now, water is glistening like a slice of orange. The waves embrace the sunset. The sea vegetation is shimmering gold, signalling that soon the sea will turn pitch black, and everybody knows the moon has less mercy than the sun. May this golden hour keep me safe.
My legs feel like jelly. My flappers burn – my eyes sting. Home is hours away. I turn around and briskly swim back. On my way, I spot a plastic bag, in it lays a baby turtle. When I come closer; I notice that the turtle is hiding in its scaly, brown shell. How could anyone do this? I think to myself. Then, with my left flipper, I rip into the silky plastic and pull the baby out.
“It’s okay, little one; you can come out now.”
The baby girl looks at me and swims away. Poor child, I think to myself, and I swim off. No sea animal is adapted to live under these cruel conditions. We are all one in the water. We all need each other to survive. That is just a fact of life.
The sunset has nearly disappeared. The sea is slowly turning a cold, ashy grey. As I swim back home, I can feel my legs begin to give out. I can’t disappoint Penny, not on her birthday. Not like this. I must not let my thoughts carry me away and put me into the belly of a killer whale. I must stay alert to the danger that awaits me. My mother used to say, “Julie, my jewel, if not you, who will defend yourself when I go to be with the good Lord?” She always knew how to tickle my ticker; she always knew how to tug it hard too. And now, I miss her. I miss how things used to be.
“Julie, my Jewel, I’m always with you. Darling, trust your instinct, everything will be okay.”
“Mum, is that you? Mum, what should I do? Help me, mum!”
She does not say another word. Just like that, she’s gone. I can’t help but cry on inside. She likes to call out to me sometimes, but she leaves almost instantly. And that is always the hardest part.
The sky is darkening by the minute, but I am nearly home. I can smell the sandy beach. The sea is nearly empty. My tummy is hurting me. All of a sudden, I hear a sound. It’s Margie’s husband, Philip.
“Hello, Philip, how is it going?”
“It’s going okay. My Margie says she saw you this morning.”
“Yes, she did. I’ve been unlucky today with the fish.” I look down.
“I am sorry to hear that. Hunting hours have surely risen in the last months.”
“Yes, they have.”
“Margie told me you saved her life.”
“It was… I just warned her really, nothing big.”
“Nonsense, you saved her life! You are a true hero, Julie. Are you heading home now?”
“I know Margie would do the same for me.”
“Indeed she would. I am heading home too; would you like to join me?”
When we finally reach the shore, the silver moon shimmers. I see Margie, James and Penny all smiling at me; they flap their flippers and make a loud welcoming sound. Then, Margie looks at me with a big fish.
“I caught two fish today.” She hands me the bulkier and fatter one. “There is no way I can repay you for saving my life. This is the least I can do.” I smile, squeeze her like a bug.
“Thank you dear, the fish is more than enough.” I reply.
“Mum, Mum, I am so glad you are okay, what happened?” cries Penny.
“The sea was a little rough today. Don’t worry sweetie.”
Everyone huddles for a group hug under the moonlight. I hold Penny tight and say,
“Happy birthday, sweet little Penny.”