Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
A little bit of the sub-Antarctic, including the aurora australis, will be introduced to Albuquerque when the Penguin Chill exhibit opens at the ABQ BioPark Zoo in April or May.
Baird Fleming, director of the ABQ BioPark, and Karen Waterfall, bird curator at the zoo, gave an update Wednesday on the much-anticipated project, which has cost $13.5 million from gross receipts taxes. City officials estimate it may end up with a final price tag of about $14 million, Fleming said.
The 15,000-square-foot building is close to completion, Fleming said, and workers are busy putting in the landscaping on the 1-acre site, which is intended to resemble the landscape in the Argentine city of Ushuaia, at the southern tip of South America.
“It’s a hopping-off point to get on a boat and go see the penguins in the wild on South Georgia Island,” off eastern Argentina in the South Atlantic, Fleming said. “We’re also finishing some touches on the inside of the exhibit to make sure everything is perfect, because when you bring in sub-Antarctic penguins to the desert of Albuquerque, there’s no room for mistakes.”
The main attraction, of course, will be the penguins – 10 King penguins, 10 Macaroni penguins and 12 Gentoo penguins – all coming from breeding programs at SeaWorld locations in Orlando, Fla., and San Diego, Fleming said.
Among the first things visitors will see when they enter the Penguin Chill exhibit is a large auditorium-style room where live-streaming images from the South Pole of the aurora australis will be projected onto the ceiling. The floor of the room will contain a large map of the area where penguins are found.
From there, the exhibit space spirals downward. “We want people to feel like they are boarding a research vessel, with all kinds of interactive and educational features about the different species of penguins, and touch screens,” Fleming said.
One feature simulates a ship-to-shore Skype call in which visitors can hold a receiver and select from questions that will be answered by a researcher.
Spiraling down farther, visitors leave the “research vessel” and find themselves in an ice cave on South Georgia Island, where they can examine a replica of an ice core sample and scan it for information as sound recordings from beneath the ice in Antarctica are piped in.
At the bottom is an underwater viewing area, where penguins can be seen swimming in a 70,000-gallon tank that is 12 feet deep. Visitors will be able to look through the floor into a tunnel, where they can see penguins going from one side of the tank to the other.
The life support system for the Penguin Chill exhibit is massive, Waterfall said A filtration system will cycle the water in the tank every 30 minutes, and a refrigeration system will keep the water at 40 to 45 degrees. A specialized ultraviolet and lighting system will mimic the seasonal day and night cycles in the sub-Antarctic region.
“For the shortest days, the lights may come on at 8:30 a.m. and go off around 4 p.m., while for the longest days the lights may come on at 3 a.m. and go off at 9 or 10 p.m.,” she said.
Penguins are birds. They lay eggs and have feathers and wings, but they do not fly. “They do a thing call porpoising, where they get a lot of speed going in the water and they actually fly out of the water to grab a breath to keep their momentum going.”
It does, however, “seem like they fly through the water,” she said. “Gentoo penguins are the fastest, and they can go 22 to 24 miles per hour, and often those are the ones you see porpoising through the water as they go after krill and fish.”
In the wild, penguins can live 25 to 30 years, though some King penguins have reportedly lived more than 40 years in captivity, Waterfall said. After Emperor penguins, King penguins are the next-largest of the species, standing about 3 feet tall and weighing about 25 pounds at maturity. Gentoos are about 2 feet tall and Macaronis a bit smaller than that.
Penguins are definitely not at the top of the food chain. They are prey for elephant and leopard seals and killer whales.
And contrary to how they are sometimes depicted, they are not preyed upon by polar bears, which are found only in the Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere, Waterfall said.
Penguins are residents of the Antarctic and Southern Hemisphere regions, although one species, the Galápagos penguin, lives near the equator.
City officials under the previous administration originally estimated that the exhibit would open earlier this year; and although the site is nearly ready for the penguins, the penguins aren’t ready for the site.
They are going through a process called catastrophic molting in which they lose all their feathers and grow new ones. The penguins don’t go through the six-week process all at the same time, which involves gaining weight leading up to the molting, losing weight during the molting, and then regaining that weight afterward, Waterfall said.
“It’s a really a high-energy demand for the penguins and it can be stressful for them,” as is transporting them, particularly if they are still molting.
In addition, some of the penguins are breeding, and they can’t be moved while they are sitting on eggs.
The king penguins are not molting or breeding at the moment and could be moved, “But we don’t want to do that because they will take over the turf, so it’s better to bring them all in at the same time,” Fleming said.