The return of the penguins

September 12, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
It is lunchtime at the penguin habitat at the new California Academy of Sciences. It is an all-you-can-eat affair, but sometimes the diners get a little pushy.

The penguins' new set up is very different from their old accommodations at the original Steinhart Aquarium, where they were always one of the Academy's biggest crowd pleasers.

"They were really cute, even though you shouldn't have them as a pet," one girl said.

When the old Academy was torn down, the penguins moved to the museum's temporary home, south of Market Street. There had been eight penguins in the colony, but soon there were nine.

The newest penguin was Howard. Howard spent the first few weeks of life living with his parents in the penguin exhibit, in a nest out of public view. He eventually learned to walk, but since he could not yet swim, he was moved out of the exhibit and the dangerous pool.

Howard spent the next six weeks behind the scenes, being raised by his adopted mother, aquatic biologist Pam Schaller.

"What's really important is we are contributing to the gene diversity of penguins," Schaller said.

Howard is an African penguin, a species that lives off the coast of South Africa and Namibia. The number of African penguins living in the wild is dropping dramatically.

"We really wanted to focus on these birds in particular because their numbers in the wild are declining," Schaller said. "In the early 1900's you're looking at 1.4 million birds, and now we're looking at about 18,000."

In the wild, penguins have to compete with large-scale fishing operations; but at the Academy, there is plenty of food available.

On his first day with his human handler, Howard's most important job was to learn to eat fish fillets. Luckily, he was a quick study.

"He's beginning to understand that these whole pieces of fish are what he should be feeding on," Schaller said.

While Howard bulked up, the Academy started looking for new penguins from other institutions. It found five penguins at a zoo in Idaho. When they arrived, they ranged from 5-months-old to about 1-year-old. The penguins were almost adult size, but they did not yet have their full tuxedo coloring.

The penguins flew from Idaho in the cargo section of a jet and arrived in good shape.

"Especially since they've been on a plane for an hour and in transport for a total of about 4 hours," Schaller said. "You know what it's like flying, you get tired. But they look really refreshed, actually."

In June, the first two penguins were taken from the temporary museum to give the new exhibit a test run. When they arrived, it took a little coaxing, but eventually, the first penguin plunged into the new pool. A few days later, the whole colony arrived.

"They are exhibiting very natural behaviors in here and I attribute that to a very naturalistic exhibit," Schaller said.

The penguin's new pool holds 25,000 gallons of water, five times bigger than rthe original. There are now 20 penguins living there. The new exhibit allows the penguins to swim right up to the visitors. Sometimes it can be a little hard to tell who is watching who.

As for Howard, he is now over 1-year-old. And he was his first girlfriend, Sefara. Penguins mate for life, but they usually shop around first

"There's always drama, social drama going on in here, it's so funny," Schaller said.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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