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New penguin exhibit to open Thursday in Long Beach

May 15, 2012 |  9:28 am


A new $1.5-million exhibit at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach featuring a colony of 13 Magellanic penguins is set to open to the public Thursday.

Four of the penguins were found starving and stranded on warm Brazilian beaches, victims of global warming, overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction. The remainder came from existing exhibits across the nation.

As staffers prepared the 3,000-square-foot June Keyes Penguin Exhibit for its debut — installing sunshades, inspecting plumbing fixtures and setting up kennels to mimic nesting burrows — the first penguins in the aquarium's collection of 11,000 animals were exploring the amenities of their new digs.

Some of the flightless black-and-white birds used their stubby flippers to glide gracefully through the water of a 14,000-gallon pool chilled to a constant 60 degrees. Others waddled and swayed on land like tiny partygoers heading home from an all-nighter. A few fluffed their feathers in anticipation of a bucket lunch: Herring and smelt prepared in the aquarium's stainless-steel kitchen.

The aquarium’s new residents have seethed with courting rituals since the arrival of breeding season. One pair is already tending to a newly hatched chick. Another pair guards a clutch of eggs.

"The penguins beat us to the punch; we weren't expecting all this breeding activity until after we opened the new exhibit," Dudley Wigdahl, curator of marine mammals and birds, said with a laugh.

Visitors will be able to tell who is courting whom in the exhibit through a 1-hour, 45-minute behind-the-scenes "penguin encounter" tour, which will allow participants — at $90 a person — to get up close to the birds.

A few of those visitors will be selected to help prepare penguin food and then participate in a feeding session led by a staff biologist — provided the penguins are behaving themselves.

In April, then-Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was bitten on the finger by a Magellanic penguin during a behind-the-scenes tour of the St. Louis Zoo.

At the Aquarium of the Pacific, officials say they will make sure visitors are carefully matched with chilled-out penguins.


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Photo: Biologist Karen Anderson feeds Magellanic penguins in the Aquarium of the Pacific's new permanent exhibit. Credit: Christina House / For the Times