By Jenelle Franklin
An underwater gallery with a vast acrylic window and two acrylic tunnels provides breathtaking views of the penguins swimming above, around and even below as guests walk through Detroit Zoo’s new Polk Penguin Conservation Center.
“Penguins are fascinating to watch – they seem to have acrobatic abilities underwater, and they can swim up to 22 miles per hour,” said Jennie Miller, the communications manager for the Detroit Zoological Society.
The center is built for penguin conservation and includes a brief overview of climate change as attendees make their way through the 4-D experience, being misted by “sea water” and immersing into the voyage to the Antarctic inspired by Sir Ernest Shackleton.
The center is named in dedication of “a $10 million gift from the Polk Family Fund – the largest gift in the Detroit Zoological Society’s history,” said Miller.
As the King, Gentoo, Macaroni and Southern Rockhopper breeds adjusted to their tip-of-the-world inspired digs – complete with an exterior waterfall and custom “iceberg” paint color – the conservation efforts were on display for the public to absorb.
The King penguin species are the least threatened of the four, the Gentoos are reaching a near-threatened conservation rating, and the Macaronis and Southern Rockhoppers are already considered vulnerable species.
The environments for each of the four penguin species are naturally varied, and this was taken into consideration by zoo staff.
“They are all in the same habitat; the air temperature is 37 degrees, the water temperature is 40 degrees,” said Tom Schneider, curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.
Snow machines, varying wave pools, room to fly through the water and new environmentally inspired rock formations to jump onto all greet the 83 penguins inside their new home at the Detroit Zoo.
“We have built a number of nesting ledges and will add rocks and other nesting material during breeding season. We also have an incubation room and nursery if we need to hand-raise,” Schneider said.
“There is 10 times as much water in the aquatic area, which allows them more swimming and diving opportunities,” Schneider said.
Schneider, who helped author the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ “Penguin (Spheniscidae) Care Manual,” said to ensure the most comfortable experience, “We exceed most of these standards.”
For nine years, Washtenaw Community College Instructor David Wooten has taken his biology of animals class to zoos for discussion and hour long windows for animal observation.
His more recent trips have been going to Toledo rather than Detroit, only due to the off-site aquarium in Michigan located in Belle Isle Park.
When choosing which animal to observe, a lot of people choose penguins, Wooten said. “The Detroit Zoo has always had a better Penguinarium, even years ago,” Wooten said. “The Toledo Zoo has a nice display but it’s very small, you could walk down and get an underwater viewing and that’s it; what they’ve done now is modified the habitat to be a part of the aquarium building.”
He said although it is the aquarium that gets his class to Toledo Zoo each semester, his heart and fun-filled childhood memories still keep him going to Detroit on personal visits.
“I remember as a kid, I loved the fantastic bird house you walk through, and the Penguinarium. Everyone loved seeing them swim around doing circles,” Wooten said.
“It was a little crowded, but the view was still nice,” said Bruce Becker, who brought his grandson to Detroit’s new penguin center on the evening of April 25. “I was surprised at how many (penguins) there were.”
Becker has a Detroit Zoo membership and proudly says he plans to return with more family.
“We always support the zoo, and will be back throughout the year,” Becker said.
“As the largest penguin facility in the world, we expect an unprecedented number of visitors. In order to manage crowds and ensure visitor safety and enjoyment, the timed-entry passes will be required. They are available on a first-come, first-served basis at admissions on the day of your visit,” Miller said.
Rachel Barsch, WCC coordinator for student activities said with the opening of the new center, she will try to get a Fall-time trip together for students to go visit the Detroit Zoo.