Penguin love at new exhibit in Long Beach


The signs of penguins in love were unmistakable at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach on Monday: puffing their chests, standing on tiptoes while clicking their beaks together, belting out donkey-like brays.

The colony of 13 Magellanic penguins, which recently moved from holding pens to a new $1.5-million exhibit that opens to the public Thursday, has seethed with courting rituals since the arrival of breeding season.

One pair is already tending to a newly hatched chick. Another pair guards a clutch of eggs.


“The penguins beat us to the punch; we weren’t expecting all this breeding activity until after we opened the new exhibit,” Dudley Wigdahl, curator of marine mammals and birds, said with a laugh.

“In any case, we’re delighted to finally have penguins on display,” he said. “They are terrific ambassadors for their species, and they have a compelling story to tell about environmental shifts and their consequences.”

Four of the penguins were found starving and stranded on warm Brazilian beaches, victims of global warming, overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction. The penguins don’t normally stray far from the cold water, anchovies and rocky strongholds at the southern tip of South America, but they’re having to travel farther for food. The rest of the penguins came from existing exhibits across the nation.

“Part of our job is to get the word out that rapid environmental changes are taking a toll on these birds, and their fate may be linked to ours,” Wigdahl said. “Penguins have existed on the planet for more than 50 million years. Yet today, an estimated 75% of the world’s 17 species of penguins are threatened or endangered.”

As staffers were preparing the 3,000-square-foot June Keyes Penguin Exhibit for its debut -- installing sunshades, inspecting plumbing fixtures and setting up kennels to mimic nesting burrows -- the first penguins in the aquarium’s collection of 11,000 animals were exploring the amenities of their new digs.

Some of the flightless black-and-white birds used their stubby flippers to glide gracefully through the water of a 14,000-gallon pool chilled to a constant 60 degrees. Others waddled and swayed on land like tiny partygoers heading home from an all-nighter. A few fluffed their feathers in anticipation of a bucket lunch: herring and smelt prepared in the aquarium’s stainless-steel kitchen.

“It’s hard not to be anthropomorphic about penguins,” Wigdahl said.

Still, during an invitation-only tour on Monday for aquarium members, 6-year-old Natalie Wallis pointed at a small tag on a penguin’s flipper identifying that bird as “Robbie” and blurted out: “Why do these penguins have names?”

“That’s more for our benefit,” explained Perry Hampton, vice president of animal husbandry. “The names make it easier for us to keep track of them.”

Visitors will be able to tell who is courting whom in the exhibit through a 1-hour-and-45-minute behind-the-scenes “penguin encounter” tour, which will allow participants -- at $90 per person -- to get up close to the birds.

A few of those visitors will be selected to help prepare penguin food and then participate in a feeding session led by a staff biologist -- provided the penguins are behaving themselves.

In April, then-Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was bitten on the finger by a Magellanic penguin during a behind-the-scenes tour of the St. Louis Zoo.

At the Aquarium of the Pacific, officials assure that visitors will be carefully matched with chilled-out penguins.