2018-02-01 / Spotlight News

Traveling exhibit features endangered African penguins

By Don Manley


Squirt, one of a quartet of African penguins, can be seen until April 15 at the Naples Zoo. Squirt, one of a quartet of African penguins, can be seen until April 15 at the Naples Zoo. Sal, Squirt, Tubbs and Missy seemed oblivious to the bevy of excited onlookers who watched them calmly go about their morning routine.

Observers were nothing unusual for the webbed-footed foursome that composes the traveling exhibit now at Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens, titled Penguins in Paradise.

Contained inside a 14-foot-long, 5-foot-high enclosure is a multi-level habitat for a quartet of endangered African penguins that includes a 3,000-gallon tank of water and individual dens each can call home. They thrive in the subtropical climate of the coastline and islands of their native South Africa and Namibia, rather than the frozen environment favored by their cousins in Antarctica.

The special exhibit is on loan from Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park in Fort Walton Beach. The display opened in mid-November and closes April 15, and it’s proven to be popular with visitors, said Mike Sullivan, the zoo’s penguin keeper, on a recent morning.


Sal, outside one of the dens the penguins call home. Sal, outside one of the dens the penguins call home. “Specifically, children love it,” he added. “Children love being able to see the penguins up close. They are working as great ambassadors for their species and for the conservation of it. Overall, it’s been a pretty big draw.”

As if on cue, as he spoke a flock of first-graders on a zoo field trip from Laurel Oak Elementary School were pouring into the covered enclosure with teachers and chaperones. The youths gazed in wonder, pointed and chattered away as they watched the warm-weather birds waddle around the enclosure and take dips in the pool.

Madison Cox and Caroline Myers, both 6, and their mothers, came away impressed.

“They were really cute and they jumped in the water together,” said Caroline.


One of the four African penguins at the Naples Zoo exhibit Penguins in Paradise. One of the four African penguins at the Naples Zoo exhibit Penguins in Paradise. Her mother, Johanna Myers, thought the exhibit was fantastic.

“She’s been learning about penguins at school and she’s really excited,” she said about Madison. “She was happy to see them and they kind of brought it (the lessons) to life for them.”

Madison had expected the birds to be larger, but that surprise didn’t detract from her enthusiasm. However, she did come away with one false impression.

“The penguins were cold in the water because they kept, like, shaking,” said Madison, before being informed by an adult that the pool is kept at 66 to 68 degrees, the ideal temperature range for the birds.

Her mother, Kimberly Cox, was charmed, and said they intended to return with her 9-year-old daughter, Haley.

The birds are also known as jackass penguins because of the donkey-like braying they make to communicate and attract mates. They average about 2 feet in height and usually weigh up to 8 pounds. African penguins tend to make shallow dives searching for small fish such as anchovies and sardines and the squid and crustaceans that constitute their diet.

Sullivan conducts two “keeper talks” daily, when he discusses the birds and conducts a question-and-answer session with visitors. “We always have it staffed with a ‘penguin interpreter’ who’s here to answer questions, and also volunteers who are educated on them,” he added.

At the turn of the 19th century, there were about 4 million African penguins worldwide, roughly 1 million of them in breeding pairs, but the most recent tally found approximately 55,000 individual birds, including about 25,000 breeding pairs, said Sullivan. Overfishing of the species’ dietary staples is the primary reason for the species’ endangered status, something he addresses in his talks.

“So we’re really using them as a focal point,” he said of Sal, Squirt, Tubbs and Missy. “We want people to see these birds and understand what they’re going through in the wild and that the way we can help them is through Seafood Watch.”

Naples Zoo is participating with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, accessible through a mobile phone app that enables shoppers to learn whether sustainability-focused fishing or farming methods have been used before they make a purchase. The zoo also asks visitors to donate $1 to provide food for orphaned or oiled African penguins, as well as man-made, long-term dens.

“So even one dollar can go a long way toward just one penguin,” said Sullivan.

The Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens is located at 1590 Goodlette-Frank Road. For more information about the Penguins in Paradise exhibit, visit napleszoo.org/penguins or call 262-5409.

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