You've watched them comically waddle about and tap dance and sing on the big screen. You've admired their always black tie party-ready attire. You've heard fascinating facts about their parenting habits. But do you really know penguins?
I won't spoil it... yet! But a penguin's webbed feet feel nothing like you'd imagine. And a penguin has more feathers than you ever would have guessed. And penguins... well... how do I say this delicately? You really would not want them swimming in your pool or sitting on your lap, if you catch my drift!
I know all of this—and much more penguin lore—because my daughter and I participated in the Penguin Encounter program at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut. This intimate, hour-long session with a trainer and one of the aquarium's resident African penguins is lively and fun for ages six and up, but it also has a serious intent: to educate animal lovers about these endangered aquatic birds and to fund efforts to care for and protect them.
Penguin Poop Happens
Penguin specialist Josh Davis introduced us to Yellow Blue, a female African penguin. After she wobbled freely around the climate-controlled encounter room, acclimating to her new audience and eliciting delighted giggles from the kids in our small group, Davis told us a bit about Mystic Aquarium's penguin population. The Roger Tory Peterson Penguin Exhibit is home to more than 28 penguins including nearly a dozen mated pairs.
Davis also experienced an unfortunate penguin byproduct he'd cautioned us about. "Yellow Blue is like a poop machine," he explained good-naturedly. Even though the penguin will be nattily attired, it's a good idea to dress down for your encounter. A penguin's tuxedo, we learned, serves a dual purpose: Black feathers absorb heat, while white serve as countershading or camouflage.
Yellow Blue's curious name, Davis explained, stems from the aquarium's practice of assigning colors to represent numbers that designate the order in which each penguin joined the colony. Each penguin sports a beaded wing band with these identifying colors and a light pink or light blue bead indicating the penguin's gender. Yellow Blue's mate, we learned, is named Yellow Silver. She doesn't recognize him by his bling, though, but by the sound of his calls.
What Does a Penguin Feel Like?
It was finally the moment we'd waited for. After Davis instructed us on how to "pet" Yellow Blue without startling her as she roamed among the toys in the room, we got our chance to find out first-hand: What does a penguin feel like?
With 70 feathers per square inch, a penguin's sleek coat is dense, felty and softer than it looks. Once each year, penguins undergo a catastrophic molt: Over the course of 14 to 16 days, they lose and regrow all of their feathers. We learned that when penguins are preening, they are actually coating their feathers with oil produced by a gland in their tails. The oil insulates against the cold and also keeps these strong swimmers gliding swiftly through the water. At a speed of 25 mph, penguins swim faster than dolphins... and Michael Phelps, Davis told us.
Well-Engineered Webbed Feet
Spoiler Alert: If you want to be as surprised as I was when you first touch a penguin's webbed feet, then jump to the next page.
I'm not quite sure why I imagined webbed feet would feel like hard, smooth plastic. Perhaps I was misled by the duck pull toy I had as a kid. My little girl and I were both startled to discover that penguins' webbed feet, which are engineered to propel them through the water at high speed, feel very similar to a dog's padded paws. Penguins' feet even have claws.
Song of the Heart
Fans of Happy Feet will love that Mystic Aquarium's Penguin Encounter program includes an opportunity to listen for a penguin's "heartsong" with a stethoscope. OK, it's a bit tricky to locate a penguin's heartbeat, and it sounds nothing like a Prince tune. But Yellow Blue's patience as we each took a turn trying was remarkable.
The bond and trust between the penguin and her trainer was evident. Perhaps that's why Davis was the only one who actually got "christened" with penguin poop during the session.
Even a devoted penguin trainer has his limits, though. Davis told us:"I don't get paid enough to regurgitate" That's how penguins feed their chicks, of course. "No one is better at raising penguins than penguins," he said.
Our penguin close encounter was so enthralling, we were surprised 60 minutes had flown by when it was time to say good-bye to Yellow Blue.
The threats faced by African and other species of penguins are many including climate change, illegal egg harvesting and human competition for food. Davis left us with a few ideas about everyday things we can do to help protect penguins:
- Consume only sustainable fish species.
- Visit the SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) website to learn how to get involved in efforts to save the African penguin.
- Participate in Mystic Aquarium's annual Run/Walk for Penguins (usually held in October) to benefit the endangered African Penguin.
- Go home and tell your family, friends and neighbors what you learned about these amazing birds.
To make a date with a penguin at Mystic Aquarium, call 860-572-5955, ext. 520, or reserve a space in the Penguin Encounter program online. The fee as of 2018 is $79 ($69 for Mystic Aquarium members) in addition to the regular price of admission. Children ages 6 to 12 must be accompanied by a paying adult.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary admission for the purpose of reviewing this program. While it has not influenced this review, TripSavvy believes in full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.