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Flipping Out for Vancouver Aquarium’s African Penguins

Bypass the belugas, forget the frogs, save the sea otters for later. Power-walk straight to Penguin Point, where the Vancouver Aquarium houses its newest residents: African penguins

By Kristina Urquhart

Steveston the penguin, at Vancouver Aquarium. Photo by KK Law

African Penguins
Spheniscus demersus
Snow and ice are what come to mind when people think of penguins. But most species of penguin don’t live in wintry climates, which makes the adorable African penguins, new to the Vancouver Aquarium, a perfect fit for our mild city. These pocket-sized penguins, only 70 cm (27 in) tall, live on islands along the west coasts of Namibia and South Africa in colonies called rookeries. Penguin Point, their habitat at the aquarium where they’ll live for two years, is modelled after Boulders Beach in Cape Town, South Africa. While the first penguins of 62 million years ago favoured the cold of southern New Zealand and Antarctica, those that migrated over time to Africa have adapted to life off the ice. They avoid overexposure to the sun and perform their daily activities in the morning and early evening. Non-breeding penguins spend most of their day hanging out on the beach, frequently diving into the ocean to stay cool and carving gnarly waves like their chill counterparts in the animated film Surf’s Up. Hang ten!

Fun Facts

  • African penguins were once called jackass penguins, for the donkey-braying sound they use to communicate. They’re also sometimes referred to as black-footed penguins.
  • African penguins can swim at speeds of up to 16 km/hr (10 mi/hr) underwater. Penguins have heavier bones than other birds, so they’re less buoyant and can dive deep.
  • African penguins are the only penguins that live in Africa.
  • If you see these flightless birds getting their trademark blush, know it’s not because they’re embarrassed they can’t fly: when African penguins are too hot, blood rushes to their faces to be cooled in a process called thermoregulation.
  • There are between 17 to 20 species of penguin, depending on who you talk to. The African penguin very closely resembles the Humboldt penguin, found on the west coast of South America.

African penguins at Vancouver Aquarium’s Penguin Point. Photo by KK Law

Meet the Penguins
Last summer, the Vancouver Aquarium held a contest for locals to help name our penguin visitors after BC place names. Each bird is identifiable by the beaded band around its flipper. The first bead in the series determines the penguin’s sex (pink for females, blue for males). The remaining bead colours tell the penguins apart. See if you can spot all seven penguins while they strut their stuff:

  • Lillooet: female; pink
  • Tofino: male; blue
  • Hope: female; white
  • Nelson: female; brown
  • Steveston: male; red
  • Sechelt: female; yellow
  • Salt Spring: female; orange

Tiny Dancers
Back in 2005, a not-so-little documentary called March of the Penguins highlighted the plight of Antarctica’s emperor penguins, who endure harsh conditions and journey far and wide to find food for their young. Like their South Pole brethren, African penguins travel long distances into the sea to secure sustenance for their chicks, which they feed by regurgitation. And like the emperors, African penguins are monogamists. Sound like a bore? The love lives of these amusing avians play out like a soap opera. The courtship ritual starts with a dance, the male shuffling repeatedly around the female while honking and chasing her. Then it’s a hug, flippers embraced, followed by a rapid beak bashing and more shuffling. Happy Feet, indeed.

Penguin Protection
The African penguin population, which once numbered in the millions, has dropped 90 per cent since the early 20th century, landing these wonderful waddlers on the endangered species list. Natural predators include seals and sharks, but humans are the penguins’ biggest threat. The birds feast on small fish such as anchovies, sardines and herring, and their supplies have been compromised by overfishing. People in South Africa once collected penguin eggs for sale, but this has since been banned there, with breeding locations now protected by national parks. The penguins at the Vancouver Aquarium, on loan from Boston’s New England Aquarium, were bred as part of the Species Survival Plan, created by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as a way to promote sustainability measures and increase the animal population through breeding. For more information, visit www.aza.org.

Penguin Cam
Is your penchant for penguins still not satisfied? Watch these boisterous birds preen and prattle 24/7 on the Penguin Cam at www.vanaqua.org.

Sea otter with sea urchin, at Vancouver Aquarium. Photo by Nida Fatima Khan courtesy Vancouver Aquarium

Cool Critters
If you’ve had your fill of the penguins (although that’s unlikely), Vancouver Aquarium houses 50,000 other creatures worth a visit. The exhibit Luminescence (to Jan. 22) demonstrates how deep-sea denizens such as jellyfish and coral glow in the dark. Among the other don’t-miss residents at the aquarium:

  • The belugas. Two white, winsome whales, who always seem to be smiling, delight visitors with tricks like twirling and waving. Check out these cetaceans from the underwater viewing area, too.
  • A giant green sea turtle swimming with sharks.
  • Prickly sea urchins nestled in rainbow-coloured coral reefs.
  • British Columbian marine life, from the Pacific octopus to spot prawns to rockfish.
  • Creepy crawlies. The tarantulas, snakes and cockroaches are a hit with the strong-stomached kiddies.
  • Pacific white-sided dolphins performing for the crowds.
  • Cute-as-a-button sea otters.
  • Majestic macaws and sleepy sloths in the Amazonian rainforest area.
  • Clownfish. The kids will wonder if they’ve stepped on the set of Finding Nemo when they come across these orange and black striped swimmers.
  • Frogs, toads and other amphibians in the Frogs Forever? exhibit. Ribbit!

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