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Dassen Island

Dassen Island, once it has cast its spell on you, it will hold you in its net forever, where memories of the island will linger long after your footprints in the sand are gone.

Most photos by L Upfold & M van Onselen | Info Supplied by Yzerfontein Tourism & Dassen Island Management Plan


Dassen Island a somewhat barren yet beautiful 220 hectare seabird sanctuary lies 55 kilometres north-west of Cape Town and about 9 kilometres west of Yzerfontein, and if you want a little bit more specific it lies at latitude 33o25’S and longitude of 18o05’E.


The island is strictly protected from human disturbance. The general public is not allowed on the island and access to the island for research, film crews and contractors is controlled by a permit system.


The reason for this: the Islands long history of human activity which include penguin egg collections and guano scraping and the adverse effect it had on the seabird populations and the birds’ sensitivity during their breeding season.


From the 1860s Dassen Island has been managed by a succession of government organisations. It was formerly under the control of the Department of Environmental Affairs, in April 1987 it was given to the Chief Directorate of Nature and Environmental Conservation and gazetted as a Provincial Nature Reserve on 18 March 1988. Today manged by CapeNature, while Transnet (Lighthouse Services division) has servitude rights around the lighthouse and associated buildings.


Dassen Island had several names in the early period of its history. The first to report the island was Joris van Spilbergen in November 1601, he gave it the name Elizabeth Island, named after his wife. A few years later Sir Edward Michelburn of the English East India Company came along and noted the abundance of what he thought was conies and seals, thus naming it Coney Island. Around 1654 Governor Jan van Riebeeck decided to regularly send sealers to the island and they named it Dassen Island because of all the dassies they observed. And luckily that name stuck.


The Lighthouse was commissioned on 15 April 1893 and was built by the Chance Brothers from Birmingham, England on the highest point on the island.


A fun fact, the solid rock foundation of the tower was built with rock quarried on the island, and each steel compartment was shipped separately and was put together on the island.

The lights unique flash is 2 flashes every 30 seconds.


Commercial egg harvesting was extensive in the early 1900s. In 1919 alone almost 600 000 penguin eggs were harvested. To facilitate the egg collection a penguin exclusion wall was built around the outer perimeter of the island in the early 1940s. The commercial harvesting of eggs on Dassen stopped in 1967.


Today the penguins have access to the entire island through gaps in the wall or at places where the ground is now high enough for them to get over.


Mostly birds. 147 Bird species have been recorded on Dassen Island, of these 23 breeds on the island throughout the year and 7 species that occasionally breed or have bred on the island. 7 of the breeding species is classified from Vulnerable to Endangered.


Other than birds there are 3 species of land mammals (e.g. European Rabbit), 5 species of reptiles and a lot of invertebrates.


A few bird species found on the island:

THE AFRICAN PENGUIN (Spheniscus demersus)

  • Dassen use to have the largest African Penguin colony in South Africa before their numbers plummeted from around 25 000 breeding pairs in 2004 to about 1912 pairs in 2019 (a census was not conducted in 2020 due to Covid-19 and lock down, a census will be conducted soon in 2021).
  • In the past penguins was used as food (their fat and eggs) and they were used as fuel in boilers of ships
  • They are endemic and the only penguin species that breeds in Africa; their Global IUCN status is Endangered (2018)


Dassen is located in an area that experiences significant shipping activity, over the years many vessels have been wrecked in the vicinity of the island, mostly as a result of poor visibility due to thick fog. The island has many offshore reefs and pinnacles, as well as dense kelp beds, all of which can be hazardous. Various shipwrecks dot Dassen Island’s coastline, and of course some of the wrecks provide nesting habitat for seabirds, particularly Crowned and Cape Cormorants.


An interesting fact, because of all the shipwrecks it was decided to release European Rabbits on the island for fresh meat for survivors to eat.


  • The Island now have 24-hour electricity since a solar panel system was installed.
  • Only source of fresh water is rain, stored in big tanks and pumped into smaller tanks to supply buildings with running water.
  • Some of the buildings have solar geysers for hot water



So, what work is done on the island? It is all about seabird conservation. There is daily monitoring, such as the breeding success study of penguins, weighing and measuring penguin chicks for growth and general condition, penguin moult counts, shorebird counts and the stabilization of sick and injured birds. Then there are the censuses of prominent species breeding on the island. Other activities include deploying data loggers on African Penguins to determine where the feeding grounds of penguins are, collecting diet samples and beach clean-ups.


Every now and then boats and yachts run aground on the island, then the island staff must assist until the NSRI can get to the island. Island staff also have to deal with illegal landings, most of the time it is someone who just wants to look around, just have a beach day, have a drink on the beach or going for a run on the beach, using the old excuse of they did not know, yet causing a lot of disturbance.


The head length, flipper length and weight is measured to see what kind of condition the penguin chicks are in.

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