Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Wednesday was moving day at the ABQ BioPark Zoo for the penguins, who finally got out of their holding area and experienced their main exhibit space and a 75,589-gallon tank for the first time.
“The Gentoos were the first ones to jump in the water, and after 15 or 20 minutes, the Macaronis decided to get in. They still haven’t gotten out,” said ABQ BioPark director Baird Fleming. The King penguins, the largest of the three species, were a bit more reluctant to get in the water and preferred initially to congregate along a rocky area covered with man-made snow at the top of the indoor exhibit.
The smaller penguins wasted no time and zipped about underwater, as if they were flying, occasionally crossing a see-through section beneath the visitor floor that gave the birds access to a small side exhibit area.
When they did get out of the water, they popped out, like an upright Jack-in-the box, preening themselves and fluffing their feathers before waddling off.
The much-anticipated, $18 million Penguin Chill exhibit is expected to open to the public on July 23.
“We’re very excited, and in the end it was definitely worth it,” Fleming said. “It has been a Herculean effort to bring sub-Antarctic penguins to the desert Southwest of Albuquerque, but we figured out how to do it.”
He noted that the BioPark’s curator of birds, Karen Waterfall, a penguin expert, has been working to bring the penguins to the zoo for the past seven years, and helped to write their care manual for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Watching the birds explore their new, larger space on Wednesday, Waterfall said the penguins certainly seemed happy and content.
“They do quite a bit of honking vocalizations, and they’re swimming, enjoying the water and eating well, so that tells you something. When it gets into breeding season and we get some chicks, then we’ll definitely know they’re happy.”
Breeding season for penguins starts about October, when the birds will begin building nests out of rocks, twigs, grass and other items that zoo staff may bring into the tightly regulated enclosure.
A high-tech life support system for the birds keeps the air temperature at 41-43 degrees and the water temperature at about 45 degrees. A specialized ultraviolet and lighting system will mimic the seasonal day and night cycles in the sub-Antarctic region. Two snow-making machines allow fresh snow to fall daily, Waterfall said.
The 14,550-square-foot building has two floors for viewing, one above water, which visitors will initially see when they enter, and one at the bottom of the 15-foot deep tank that visitors will see as they spiral down into the exhibit space. Along the way, they will experience a live feed of the Southern Lights, the Aurora Australis, which will be projected onto a portion of the ceiling. They will also hear sounds recorded from beneath the ice, including the noise of ice cracking, the vocalizations of Weddell seals, and more.
Hand-carved and hand-painted wooden sculptures provide life-size three-dimensional models of 18 different penguin species found throughout the world.
A replica of a research vessel creates the feeling of being on an ocean-going ship, with video of the ship’s bow cutting through the water. Visitors will be able to use interactive educational touch screens inside the vessel to learn about the different species of penguins in the southern hemisphere and the environmental factors that impact them. Another feature simulates a ship-to-shore audio-video call in which visitors can select questions on a touch screen that will be answered by different experts and researchers, including Waterfall.
The one-acre Penguin Chill site is intended to resemble the landscape in the Argentine city of Ushuaia, at the southern tip of South America.
The building can hold up to 385 people at a time.
A group of 22 Gentoo and Macaroni penguins, both male and female, were brought to the ABQ BioPark Zoo from SeaWorld in San Diego, while a bachelor group of 10 King penguins came from SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla.
One of those King penguins, a 2-year-old named James, died about eight days after arriving. A necropsy was done on the bird, the results of which are still being analyzed; however, Fleming said what is known for certain is that the penguin “did not die from any kind of transmissible illness that would affect the rest of the flock.”
The staff at the zoo has named all the Gentoo and Macaroni penguins after personality traits or landmarks from the southern hemisphere.
The King penguins came with names, most of which are somehow related to kings, either historical or pop culture – such as Xerxes (Persian king), Koopa (King Koopa from the Mario Brothers video game), Julian (King Julian from the animated film “Penguins of Madagascar”), and Chicken (a la king).