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Where in the USA can you see Antarctic and sub-Antarctic penguins? At SeaWorld San Antonio and SeaWorld San Diego, a 120-foot-long moving walkway carries you past the large windows of Penguin Encounter. SeaWorld Orlando has an all-new Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin ride and a penguin cam.

Emperor penguin, with adelies (left) and gentoos (right)
Emperor penguin, with adelies (left) and gentoos (right)
Photo © SeaWorld

Inside, flightless birds of the Spheniscidae family jump, slide and waddle over snow, ice and rocks. Every day, 6,000 pounds of manufactured snow falls in the simulated Antarctic habitat. (Temperatures in SeaWorld San Antonio and SeaWorld Orlando run between 32 and 34°F. In SeaWorld San Diego, the penguin habitat is in the mid-20s.)

You can also watch the penguins cavort in the 45°F. water. Excellent swimmers, the birds use their flippers to propel their torpedo-shaped bodies through the water.

How do penguins stay warm?

Penguins have more feathers per square inch than any other bird (70 waterproof feathers per square inch). They also consume a lot of calories.

Tiny Magellanic penguins, which are native to the tip of South America, weigh only seven to ten pounds, yet consume one-third their weight each day. (At SeaWorld, they eat two to three pounds of restaurant-quality herring and capelin daily.)

SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio each have more than 100 penguins, while SeaWorld San Diego has nearly 300. The moving walkway carries you past the glass-enclosed exhibit to the Learning Hall, filled with exhibits, films and hands-on demonstrations about penguins and Polar Regions. A stationary viewing area gives you more time to observe the birds frolicking about like so many little wind-up toys.

King penguin
King penguin
Photo © SeaWorld

Penguin species

There are 17 species of penguins in the world. SeaWorld is home to nine species: king, emperor, magellanic, humboldt, gentoo, adélie, macaroni, chinstrap and rockhopper. The latter is perhaps the most popular. With its disheveled spray of yellow plumes above each eye, a rockhopper penguin looks like it was caught in a windstorm.

How did SeaWorld transport penguins from the Antarctic to the USA? We discovered the fascinating story when we met Robin Friday, former penguin curator at the SeaWorld, in Texas, shortly before it opened in 1988.

"It's too difficult to load penguins on a plane and transport them safely all the way from Antarctica, so we decided to collect the eggs and hatch them in our quarantine facilities in San Diego," explained Robin.

Hatching penguin eggs

"Penguins usually lay two eggs and often, due to food unavailability, they can only successfully raise one chick. We collect the extra eggs that are destined to die and transfer them to incubators for hatching."

He recalled his three-week trip from England to the South Georgia Islands where he collected the eggs for Penguin Encounters. Robin and two other curators flew on a British Royal Airforce plane to the Falkland Islands. From here, a British navy ship (appropriately named the HMS Endurance) took them on its regular work cruise to Antarctica, the South Orkney Islands and the South Sandwich Islands before finally reaching the South Georgia Islands.

Gentoo penguins with chick
Gentoo penguins with chick
Photo © SeaWorld

"It was a good thing that we didn't collect the eggs until our last stop, because we encountered 25-foot-high waves the day before we arrived," said Robin.

Penguin food

Two days after returning to the Royal Airforce Base on the Falklands, the eggs started to hatch. Robin maintained the chicks on water while the other two curators drove to Stanley, the only town on the islands, to raid the grocery stores for frozen fish, cream and vitamins.

"I ground up the fish in the officers' mess hall and mixed it into a formula to feed the chicks on our flight back to England," explained Robin. "I put the penguin milkshake into plastic syringes and attached a tube to the end to squirt the food down their tiny throats."

By the time the 344 eggs were switched over to a British Airways flight to San Diego, Robin had 12 starving chicks to feed every four hours. "We set up a nursery in Business Class. Even the airline flight attendants and captain helped us feed them, fill out their records and monitor the batteries in the incubators," recalls Robin.

When the plane finally landed in California, 17 eggs had hatched and imprinted on a tired but elated Robin Friday. (Imprinting is aviculture talk for the bonding that occurs between mother and child.) At SeaWorld, the penguins ran up to Robin whenever they saw him and followed him around like baby ducks trailing their mother.

After the remaining eggs hatched and passed the quarantine period in San Diego, the young penguins flew aboard a modern-day Noah's Ark to San Antonio. A refrigerated truck brought them to their new home at SeaWorld. As the snow and ice-covered ramp was lowered, SeaWorld officials and TV audiences waited anxiously to see if the penguins would like their simulated Antarctic habitat.

It was love at first sight. Clucking and honking, the penguins paraded in comic unison down the ramp and waddled on to the 100-foot by 60-foot ice shelf. Like schoolchildren, they played tag in the snow.

Antarctic summer and winter seasons

Here in their icy enclave, the seasons run according to Antarctic time. As the North American winter approaches, so does the Antarctic summer, and the lighting is adjusted to give continuous daylight. During North America's summer, the reverse happens. Lighting is dimmed to simulate Antarctic winter twilight.

One year after hatching, the fledglings lost their down and grew adult feathers. There was only one problem. They didn't know that they were supposed to spend 75 per cent of their time in water.

Robin took it all in his stride. "I conducted swimming lessons twice a week and showed them how to get in and out of the pool. The first time they hit the water, they almost walked on top of it trying to get out, but before long, they felt right at home."

The best time to visit Penguin Encounters is at feeding times. (Times change with the season, so check when you arrive.) As a staff member doles out fish from a bucket, the penguins solemnly strut up, like little graduates at a ceremony accepting diplomas, only here, the diploma is a capelin or ocean smelt.

King penguins and chinstrap penguin (on the left)
King penguins and chinstrap penguin (on the left)
Photo © SeaWorld

Penguin research and conservation

Visitors aren't the only ones watching the penguins. Penguin Encounters are also living laboratories where scientists from around the world can study their behavior.

In addition to contributing to research, the penguins are also goodwill ambassadors. Pete and Penny, a pair of Magellanic penguins, travel with curators from SeaWorld Orlando to teach the public about penguins and their conservation.

SeaWorld's animal rescue team is on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In one case, they helped save more than 20,000 penguins off the coast of South Africa after an oil spill.

Sporting nature's own tuxedoes, Pete and Penny actually do fly. They've earned so many frequent flyer points on flights to New York, Chicago, Canada and other destinations, that they could use them for a vacation in the southern hemisphere!


SeaWorld: www.seaworld.com

More things to see and do in SeaWorld Parks:

Driving Tour Joins Washington DC, Virginia Beach and Busch Gardens Europe

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay - Caring for Baby Animals

Sharks Underwater Grill - SeaWorld Orlando Florida

Aquatica - SeaWorld Orlando Water Park