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‘We need happy in Albuquerque — and this is happy’

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Penguins dart about under water as mesmerized visitors stop to watch Tuesday morning, when the Penguin Chill exhibit at the ABQ BioPark Zoo opened its doors to the public for the first time. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

After much anticipation, the Penguin Chill exhibit at the ABQ BioPark Zoo opened Tuesday morning as visitors formed a line that stretched to the courtyard just inside the zoo’s main entrance gate.

Visitors said the wait of an hour or longer was well-worth it to see the newest – and coolest – exhibit at the zoo.

Although the Fire Marshal’s Office has rated the building for a capacity of 385 at any given time, “we’re trying to keep it around 250 so people can move about more easily and have more fun,” said Shelle Sanchez, director of the city’s Cultural Services Department. She added zoo staffers expect about 600 people to move through the 14,550-square-foot building each hour.

The building is on a landscaped 1-acre site.

“I’m really excited. I’d have to say that I, being a desert girl, did not understand the attraction of penguins in the desert when I first came on as part of this project,” Sanchez said. “It is pretty magical in there, and the animals are mesmerizing, so I can see why a lot of people were enchanted with the idea a long time ago. I think I’ve caught up to them finally.”

BioPark Director Baird Fleming told the crowd the exhibit is intended to take visitors on a journey to the southern tip of Argentina, to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego. “You’re going to get on a research vessel and do some research, and then you’re going to go to a base in Antarctica, and while there, you will see penguins,” as well as other native sea life and the environment in which the penguins live.

Also in the crowd was Van H. Gilbert, the architect whose firm designed the Penguin Chill exhibit.

The completed project, he said, lives up to the vision he had when he was designing it.

“It’s very open, has floor-to-ceiling glass so people can see the penguins very well, and the penguins are frolicking and having a great time.”

At the conclusion of a ceremonial ribbon cutting by Mayor Tim Keller, zoo officials and a host of children, people began streaming into the building, which soon echoed with excited laughter and shrieking as visitors watched the antics of the sub-Antarctic penguins.

“We got in line early today, but really we’ve been waiting since October for it to open,” said Melanie Connors, who was walking through the exhibit with her 10-year-old daughter, Abbie. “I love that you can see the penguins from all around, and from above and below the water. It’s been worth waiting for.”

Abbie agreed. “I think it’s pretty impressive that they can make fake snow for the penguins,” she said. “I love it.”

Visitor Stephanie Cottrell and her daughter, Gemma, have also been anticipating the opening of the exhibit for a long time.

“She (Gemma) goes to Dolores Gonzales Elementary School, right across the street. We come to the zoo a lot and have been seeing the progress of the exhibit,” Cottrell said. “We’re really excited.”

“This place is amazing,” said 9-year-old Gemma. “I want to explore every little bit of it today. I really like that you can see below the water and can watch the penguins dive off the rocks.”

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Melanie Conners and daughter Abbie, 10,  were among the opening day visitors to the Penguin Chill exhibit. They have been waiting since October for the exhibit at the ABQ BioPark Zoo to finally open. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The goal of mimicking the environment of sub-Antarctic penguins was spot-on, said Karl Upplegger, who was visiting with his wife, their toddler and Upplegger’s father.

While a senior at La Cueva a number of years ago, Upplegger was part of an educational program in which students went to the South Pole “to learn about oceanography and the ecosystem down in Antarctica,” he said. “This is a great representation of that.”

His father called the Penguin Chill exhibit “fantastic” and said he was surprised because “I didn’t think they had enough space to do it.”

Meanwhile, Upplegger’s toddler daughter was staring at the penguins swimming behind the glass wall, and she issued shrieks of approval.

“I think it’s very state-of-the-art and one of the best penguin exhibits out there right now,” said BioPark Curator of Birds Karen Waterfall, who has been working for a number of years to bring the penguins to Albuquerque. “It has lived up to my expectations and what I envisioned for people, and I hope they enjoy it as much as I do.”

The Penguin Chill exhibit features 22 male and female gentoo and macaroni penguins that came from SeaWorld in San Diego, and nine king penguins that came from SeaWorld in Orlando.

The primary viewing area offers 79 linear feet of floor-to-ceiling windows for unobstructed above and below water perspectives into the 75,589-gallon main tank. A life support system for the birds keeps the air temperature at 41-43 degrees and the water temperature 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.

The entire project cost about $18 million, of which $16.2 million was from public funding. The rest was raised by the New Mexico BioPark Society.

After the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Keller called the Penguin Chill exhibit “awesome” and said the penguins are “rock stars.”

The mayor also praised the quality of the educational and interactive displays. “I can testify to that because my 3- and 5-year-olds are now telling me things about penguins that we didn’t tell them,” he said. “They learned from the exhibits.”

No one would accuse Muffin Menicucci of not getting into the spirit of things. She attended opening day dressed up as “grandma penguin.”

“I made matching penguin costumes for my daughter and me 36 years ago for Halloween, when she was in first grade,” she said. “I couldn’t find anyone today to fill the small one, but I thought it would be appropriate to dress for the occasion.”

The exhibit “doesn’t disappoint,” and all the penguins “appear very happy and very adaptable to people being around,” Menicucci said. “I’m an Albuquerque native, and I think we need happy in Albuquerque – and this is happy.”

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Max Gardner, 5, watches as a King penguin swims by an underwater viewing window on Tuesday, the opening day of the Penguin Chill Exhibit at the ABQ BioPark Zoo. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

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People began lining up early to by admission tickets at the ABQ BioPark Zoo on Tuesday, the much anticipated opening day for the new Penguin Chill exhibit. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

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