BioPark officials offered members of the media a sneak peek of the new exhibit, which is expected to open to the public in July, perhaps sooner, depending on when it’s determined the birds are fully acclimated to their new environment, BioPark Director Baird Fleming said.
The gentoo and macaroni penguins, both male and female, came from SeaWorld in San Diego. They will be joined shortly by an all-male group of king penguins from SeaWorld in Orlando.
“We want people to feel they are going on a journey, starting off at the southern tip of Argentina, in the Ushuaia area, and from there go to the islands of South Georgia, where you see a lot of these kinds of penguins,” Fleming said, “and we want to talk about climate change and its effect on those regions.”
Key features of the new exhibit include a 75,589-gallon main water tank with aboveground and underwater guest viewing areas. Visitors can walk across a glass floor area that serves as a bridge allowing penguins to swim from one area of their exhibit to another.
The ceiling of the main aboveground viewing area will provide a projection of the aurora australis, or the southern lights, live-streamed from the South Pole.
A natural day/night lighting system will keep the penguins on a Southern Hemisphere lighting schedule, which is now going into the shortest days of winter.
The exhibit will also provide a large, interactive educational area where guests can learn more about penguins and how people can aid conservation efforts.
Although penguin exhibits are common at zoos in America, only about 10 zoos have the sub-Antarctic species, said ABQ BioPark bird curator Karen Waterfall.
“Penguins from more temperate regions are much easier because they can be kept in outdoor exhibits,” she said. Getting the Penguin Chill exhibit ready for the sub-Antarctic penguins requires specialized preparation in terms of food, vitamins, air and water temperatures, staffing, even supplies for the new 14,550-square-foot building, she said.
As this water-centric exhibit prepares to open, another one at the zoo is winding down permanently.
The popular harbor seal habitat, which is about 30 years old and in need of repair, is absent of seals. Gracie, Feisty and Baby, who at 42 years old is anything but a baby, are being held in a non-viewing holding area until they can be transferred to other facilities approved by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The current seal exhibit space will eventually be incorporated into a new Australia exhibit, which will contain little blue penguins that are indigenous to coastal areas of Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand, Fleming said.