A Penguin Beach in London? Yes.

A happy black-footed penguin dives in the new London Zoo beach pool

I heard about a guy whose research is on European Penguin genetics, and my natural response was “which European penguins?” But it just so happens that there are enough domesticated penguins in zoos around Europe that their genetic history and breeding requires a lot of monitoring. Penguin adults are swapped to avoid inbreeding, chicks are bred in incubators, and penguin population dynamics and species spread is totally controlled by people like him and other scientists.

Learn how you can adopt Ricky at http://www.zsl.org/penguins

The London Zoo has a pretty large penguin roster, and they just recently opened their new penguin exhibit – the first penguin beach in England! They have Blackfooted penguins (aka the African penguin), Humboldts, Macaroni penguins, and one lonely rock-hopper penguin named Ricky who enjoys pruning friendly people.

During the exhibit launch, speeches focused on the seriousness of climate change and depleting fish stocks, since these result in catastrophic consequences for penguin breeding and survival. No average person in England or elsewhere might understand the importance of eating and living sustainably, but the carbon footprint of the entire western world is the root of both problems. Penguin populations worldwide are depleting, and as global warming melts the pack ice in Antarctica, penguins are losing their nautral habitat, the rich fishing waters, and even the ability to breed.

a mixture of penguins chillin on the beach

At the zoo, penguins are fed all their meals and receive medical attention and antibiotics whenever necessary, so even though many want to see these penguins in the wild exhibiting natural behavior, I’d say theyre pretty damn happy to stay. These penguins have now been domesticated for  generations, so living in the wild might be impossible for them anyway;  the point of the Penguin Beach and other zoo-kept colonies of penguins is to allow us to better understand them and let people, who know nothing about them or Antartica, be more aware of issues surrounding them, and perhaps fall in love with penguins enough to help make a difference.

I have family in London I meant to see but with a 2 day delay on my trip (thanks Grimsvotn), my entire London experience was centered around penguins. I stayed with 2 friends that I met last year in Antarctica, a penguin zookeeper and a Dr. Penguinologist (his actual title), and also squeezed in some time with a fellow globetrotter who travels the world surfing and photographing it (find him on facebook – Murray Ash Photography). I spent a couple days in quaint little Oxford, saw a lot of beautiful things and heard some angelic sounds like a baroque trio and organ recital in 300 year old churches, but didn’t learn nearly as much there as I did in my one day at the zoo.

the Bodleian Library in Radcliffe Square, Oxford

Hopefully my adoration of penguins has come across clearly in this blog, and if you ever get the chance to cuddle one at the zoo, swim with one in Galapagos, and walk through a million of them in Antarctica, I guarantee you’ll be a sucker for penguins too. Now Im off to South Africa for more jackass penguin loving, not called jackasses because they’re rude (no such thing as a mean penguin) but because they howl like very cute, tuxedo-dressed donkeys.

Interesting Links:

Support Penguin Research and Meet Dr. Penguinologist: http://www.zsl.org/conservation/regions/antarctica/


some crabeater seals on a drift icebergI wanted to go to Antarctica for a few reasons; first, because I am studying ecotourism for my master’s thesis and wanted to do a case study, second, because I LOVE penguins, and thirdly, because it is the 7th and last continent I had to visit. I actually booked this trip by accident, or at least with very little planning, since I was talked into going by a cute little japanese travel agent that gave me a price deal that anyone who is obsessed with traveling would have been crazy to turn down.

I sailed for 9 days from Ushuaia, starting due east out the Beagle Channel to avoid crossing into Chilean water (which is literally a few hundred meters away at certain points) on a 200 person capacity reinforced-hull cruise ship named the Clipper Adventurer with Quark Expeditions. Most of the other 120 passengers were either retired, rich, an American couple or questionably too old to handle the trip, leaving me as the youngest, brokest, loneliest passenger… until I made friends with the comparably aged crew. There were these two token ladies on the ship who always wore the same colour; one was always in yellow, the other, always in purple, and I mean head to toe in colour – shoes, pants, jacket, gloves, scarf, hat, glasses and even nail polish.

I shared a room with two hilarious Chinese women, who insisted they were from Alabama everytime you asked them where they came from even though they are American immigrants from Beijing with the furthest thing from a southern American accent. They were sea-sick the entire drake passage, as was most of the ship, and rightuflly so since the 5 m swells rocked our little ship, despite the stabilizers it claims to have. Our room was comfortable, and for the most part the ship was really luxurious (excpet for a minor issue with our toilet seat falling off) with the most amazing 3 course, porcelain plated meals a budget traveler could ask for (which was included in the cost of the curise).

Vernadsky, the Ukraine Antarctic research station we visitedMy first penguin sighting happened a few hours after departure, on a lighthouse island in the middle of the Channel. I smoked a couple cigars on the chilly deck, and managed to find a comfortable place to hang my hammock to try and counterbalance the sea-sickening rocking. Once we made it to the Antarctic continent 2 days later, we made 8 landings over the course of 4 days, visiting some active research stations, and other abandoned research stations or places that have been turned into museum-like historical points of interest.

There were all types of seals, lots of whale sightings, and the most dramatic, beautiful landscape of massive mountain peaks, thousand-year old glaciers, and icebergs the size of our ship. I saw thousands upon thousands of more penguins, of all shape and size, mostly Gentoo’s, Adelie’s, and Chinstraps, but also one each of a Macaroni penguin, King penguin and Emperor penguin, all of whom were far away from any of their species or breeding grounds. We had a polar plunge where 30 brave souls actually jumped into the water – it wasn’t just freezing, it was below freezing! We visited one Ukraine research station and got our passports stamped as if we had cleared customs in Ukraine – very cool.

lots of gentoo penguins and their chicks, with the Clipper Adventurer in the backgroundThe sail home was suprisingly calm, with barely any waves – very atypical of the Drake. Once arriving back Ushuaia, it was hard to lose your sea-legs on stable land, and the faint smell of exhaust from cars almost made me choke – confusingly stifling after a week of the freshest, cleanest, cool Antarctic air. I flew straight back home after this, 38 hours and 4 flights later from 54 degrees latitude south to 49 degrees latitude north. Going through the airport in Buenos Aires was a weather shock, with the humid, tropical air equally stifling and the torrential rain soaking me in seconds as I walked from the plane onto the tarmac to get into the terminal. I managed to miss one connecting flight in Houston, but got rerouted through San Francisco, upgraded to first class, and then had 2 hrs to spare to meet my bestfriend for lunch at In-n-Out burger.

Finally getting back home was a relief, but I am definitely still daydreaming about the surreal landscape of Antarctica.