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Close encounters with penguins.


When the largest pack of penguinsever to come to the Midwest arrived at Sea World of Ohio last spring, they received a rather chilly welcome--exactly what penguins like, said Stan Searles, the marine-life park's vice president and general curator. The 110 black-and-white birds, which hail from such inhospitable spots as the South Orkneys, the Falklands, and Antarctica, were made to feel at home in a huge, refrigerated habitat where it "snows" 5,000 pounds of icy substrate every morning and where the thermostat is set permanently in the 20s. These conditions are balmy by penguin standards, for in their natural state the birds must endure temperatures as low as -80[deg.]F. and winds of 120 mph.

"We keep the air temperature at 28degrees and don't let it go above 32," Searles said over the din from a crowd of penguin watchers. The birds can tolerate temperatures in the 40s, but they may become overheated if they are too active.

Searles is a godfather to many ofthe birds. He and other specialists went far afield to collect them as eggs from nests on a blustery island off the coast of Chile. The birds were hatched and raised in San Diego and then delivered to Sea World of Ohio at Aurora, to inhabit the second largest penguin aviary in North America.

Searles has carefully monitored thepenguins' progress. Their environment is so very delicate, he said, that even the water in their pool (where the birds spend much of their time) must be filtered every 26 minutes and special lighting used to simulate the Antarctic seasons. Proper lighting will lead to mating, and Searles said the prospects for future penguin progeny in Ohio are favorable.

While the birds are busy learningabout love in a cold climate, the park people have been concentrating on penguin publicity. There are penguin T-shirts, stuffed penguin toys, and roving penguin "people" eager to shake flippers with guests.

Last spring, Cleveland Balletdancers dressed in penguin costumes performed a chilly dance routine with Sea World's killer whales, while the audience shivered in unseasonably cold weather--all in the interests of a higher penguin public profile.

The penguins are privileged animals,Searles said. Unlike Sea World's other creatures--the trained whales, the seals, the otters, and the porpoises--the birds don't have to "work" for their room and board. (Three meals of fish a day plus air conditioning run about $250,000 a year.) "They are so cute in their normal behavior we just leave them alone," he said. "There's really nothing we could train them to do."

Through sheer personal charisma,the penguins are pulling in the public. More than 1.3 million guests have ridden the people mover along the 60-foot picture window that looks into their icy home; one-fourth of the guests have come back for a second look. They see 6 of the 17 known penguin species, all from the Southern hemisphere--from aristocratic-looking but shy emperors that grow to 3-1/2 feet and weigh nearly 90 pounds, to clownish macaroni and rockhopper penguins whose long, orange crests look like eyebrows grown wild.

The few humans allowed to enterthe large refrigerator and to visit the birds in person find them docile, if not overly friendly. People signal "feeding time" to the hand-fed birds. They also mean "sport" to some of the more fun-loving penguins that have taken to riding on the attendants' heads as they clean the pool--all of which entertains the crowds outside.

But the birds are not there just forshow. They are also the subjects of experimentation. Moving a room-size chunk of a polar region to a little town in Ohio may be like bringing the mountain to Muhammad, but Searles said, "It is the only way to ensure that penguins will not become extinct. It's difficult to study these birds in the Antarctic," he continued. "Half the year the weather is terrible, and the other half, the penguins are out to sea." Now, with the birds right under their noses, aviculturists hope to add to their meager knowledge of the world's most hardy and likable birds. Even penguin life spans remain a question mark. "Most scientists will tell you that emperors live to be in their 30s or 40s," Searles said, "but that may be short." Although it may take awhile, Sea World plans to find out.

For those who plan to visit the penguins,Searles has a suggestion. "The important thing is to spend some time in here," he said. "If you walk into the exhibit, get on the people mover, and then walk out; you'll enjoy it and learn some things. But if you spend 20 or 25 minutes watching and studying the birds, after a while you'll lose track of time."

However, don't miss the startingtimes for other new Sea World attractions, such as "The Great American High-Dive Team," with its "sizzling" human-torch divers. Those guys might not be around as long as the penguins, whom you can always come back and see again.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:at Sea World of Ohio
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1986
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