In the late 1960s, a remarkable woman named Althea Louise Burman Westphal set up a temporary station at her home in Claremont to treat oiled penguins, after realising that the SPCA’s facilities were not suitable for this task.
The Esso Essen spill was the first of the major recognised spills and Althea began rehabilitating 60 badly oiled penguins. In those days, the birds were scrubbed with Sunlight soap, three at a time in Althea’s bathroom and rinsed with a hose. She fed them long strips of hake, which had been dipped in cooking oil. The birds were given a 50/50 chance of survival.
The penguins had a wooden trailer filled with water in Althea’s garden as their swimming pool. Later, she obtained a huge stainless steel dye vat to use as a pool. Two or three times a week the birds were driven to Blaauwberg in Althea’s station wagon, marched down the beach to the tidal pool and allowed to swim for an hour.
The first flipper rings were coloured bias binding, and then dymotape and finally G rings which were supplied by the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute (PFPI) of UCT.
During this time, Althea carried out extensive research on the “Jackass penguin” to help her understand its lifestyle and dietary requirements. Early in 1968 Althea started enquiries into establishing a rescue operation, and eventually she persuaded Dr Roy Siegfried of PFPI to help her launch The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds or SANCCOB – a task they believed would cost about R150 000. Eventually a group of concerned individuals rallied together, including members of PFPI and the SA Army, and SANCCOB was founded.
Proof that the African penguin species was declining was obtained through photographic evidence of the islands from 1914 to the 1930s. Althea was given a permit to operate by the Department of Guano Islands, and a grant of R10 000 from the SA Wildlife Foundation (now the WWF) for a three year Population Dynamics Study on Dassen Island. SANCCOB achieved its first milestone in December of 1969 at a conference in the Kruger National Park when the collection of penguin eggs on the islands was banned.
Althea’s efforts in seabird conservation continued for decades, and she was recognised by conservation organisations such as SA Nature Foundation and the World Wide Fund for Nature and Conservation. She nourished and drove SANCCOB from its modest early stages to become an international leader in coastal bird rehabilitation, and was eventually made Honorary Life President. She was a dynamic, determined, self-motivated, dedicated and committed philanthropist and environmental conservationist – the likes of which South Africa may never see again.
Althea Westphal passed away on the 7th of August 2002, survived by her daughter Jane and her grandchildren, Melanie and Andrew. Her legacy lives on in the dynamic, internationally recognised organisation she co-founded.
Information and photo kindly supplied by SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds)