Saturday, October 13, 2012

Penguin Encounter

How would you like to meet The Living Planet Aquarium's coolest animals in person? The Penguin Encounter invites guests to go behind the scenes for an educational experience with the Gentoo penguins. Here's a taste of what to expect during an Encounter.

Penguin Encounter participants meet their guide under the tree in the Journey to South America exhibit. Our group had five people, though as many as eight can attend. The guide led us on a short tour through South America, ending at the penguin exhibit. There, he explained some penguin basics, including the banding system used to identify the penguins. Through the “employees only” doors, our behind-the-scenes journey began.

Aviculturist Deana Walz met us near the two huge tanks that provide all the water for the South America exhibits. She introduced the group to the aquarium's South American birds: macaws, parrots, and an aracari.* These birds are scheduled to become part of exhibits in the aquarium's new building. We saw the penguin cam, which allows aquarium staff to keep an eye on the penguins at all times. Then, we were led into the encounter room adjacent to the penguin exhibit.

The door between the encounter room and the penguin exhibit opened...

...and many penguins decided to come in and visit!

We all wore closed-toe shoes, as a precaution against inquisitive penguin nips and jackets because the encounter room is kept at a chilly 40-46 degrees Fahrenheit. We were asked not to touch the penguins. Gentoo penguins do not engage in social touching, so they do not like to be touched by people, and because the penguins are trained to eat from keepers' hands, they could accidentally bite if touched by a participant. Cameras are fine, even with a flash. However, we kept our cameras above our knees, as the penguins have been known to peck curiously at lenses. We were asked to remain seated throughout the encounter and to remain calm and quiet, which keeps the penguins safe, comfortable, and inclined to spend more time in the encounter room.

A penguin attempted to hop up on the bench.

Deana opened the door between the encounter room and the penguin exhibit. Without hesitation, six penguins waddled in. They regarded us curiously. A flurry of activity followed. One penguin attempted to hop up on the bench between two people while another hid underneath. Two penguins shared a mating bow. A couple of particularly mischievous penguins named Roto and Ghost Rider took an interest in the youngest guest's shoes and managed to untie one of them. After awhile, Deana brought out some balls for the penguins to play with. A few of the penguins pecked at the balls and chased them around. Roto and Ghost Rider bickered over a tennis ball, attempting to adopt it as their egg. The individual personalities of the penguins became clear as they interacted with objects, each other, and us. Some are shy while others are bold. Some are more playful, and some act almost regal. One may be a problem-solver, who attempts to retrieve the ball that's stuck under the door, while another is more of a problem-maker, who put the ball there in the first place.

A penguin was interested in a guest's shoe...

...and untied it.

Once they lost interest in the toys, the penguins became excited and began chasing one another. With much squawking, splashing, and slapping of webbed feet on wet ground, they dashed out of the room, into the pool in their exhibit, back into the encounter room, and around again. All the while, Deana shared fascinating facts about the penguins including behavior, training, health, molting, mating and egg raising. With Deana's extensive knowledge, everyone's questions were answered in detail. We ended the Encounter full of new knowledge, thoroughly chilled, and with an amazing experience to remember.

Balls were brought out for
the penguins to play with.

Because the penguins are free to act as they wish, every Penguin Encounter is different. Participants can expect to have a unique experience. Everyone is invited; guests who are 16 or younger must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. The Penguin Encounter is held at 1pm every day except Thursday and lasts 45 minutes. The cost is $20 per person for members and $25 per person for non-members. Advanced reservations are required. For more information, visit

A penguin tried to retrieve a
ball from under the door.

*Some of these birds were introduced in a previous post on this blog titled Birds of the Rainforest Van. Because of changes in the school programs, reptiles and amphibians now visit the schools instead, and these birds no longer travel in the Rainforest Van.