As reported by Josh Davis, Mystic Aquarium’s Senior Penguin Trainer
Jan 5, 2018: Today I was assigned to Pen 2. Most of the 34 African penguins in Pen 2 are what SANCCOB refers to as “blues”; signifying that their downy chick feathers have been replaced by waterproof feathers. Since these penguins have their waterproof feathers, they are encouraged to swim in the shallow pool adjacent to the pen for 20 minutes three times daily. This fosters conditioning of their feathers and gets them used to swimming. This is important as it’s how they will find food upon release. In addition to the blues, there are several adult African penguins in Pen 2 that had come in with various types of injuries or wounds that required treatment from SANCCOB veterinarians. Many of these wounds can be attributed to attacks by predators such as Cape fur seals or even trauma experienced when exiting the ocean in rough waves near rocky shores. These penguins are waiting for their wounds to heal completely before they can be released. While in Pen 2, they receive a regimen of formula, fish, water, and medication, if necessary, to facilitate their rehabilitation.
In addition to working in Pen 2 today, I also was able to assist in completing several volunteer tasks around the center. One of the tasks that I thoroughly enjoy is helping Jennie, a longtime SANCCOB volunteer, in cleaning up Home Pen. Home Pen is where penguins and other seabirds that cannot be released due to various reasons get to live. Among these are penguins with injuries or conditions that would greatly affect their chances of survival. Included in this population are African penguins, two rockhopper penguins, cormorants, gulls, and other bird species.
At the center of Home Pen is a wide pool where the birds can swim. Around the pool are sandy areas with South African trees and vegetation where the seabirds can nest and rocky structures where the penguins can dig burrows and nest. I was able to help Jennie turn over the sand throughout Home Pen and clean many of the rocky structures. I was surprised to find they were artificial as they look so real! These are made to be lighter so that they can be cleaned and rearranged if needed. Helping Jennie was enjoyable as was getting to see these birds up close.
Jan 6, 2018: Here at SANCCOB as penguins progress in health, weight, and feather condition, they get “upgraded” through the various pens. These pens include ICU, where the most critical of penguin cases receive care; Pen 2, where they go when they are stabilized; and Pen 3, where they go to receive their final care before being released. When I arrived at SANCCOB today I found that I was assigned to a new pen. Pen 3 is the last pen African penguins go to prior to release.
There are over 60 African penguins in Pen 3; divided into two groups for management purposes – since each group receives a slightly different regimen of care. Both groups are able to swim in the pool for one hour three times daily. This is a longer period of time than the Pen 2 penguins because these penguins are closer to release and it’s even more vital that their feathers are conditioned and prepared for life in the ocean.
Pen 3 also utilizes the same pool as Pen 2, so there is a lot of coordination necessary throughout the day to ensure all of the penguins get their needed swim. The teamwork that I witnessed at SANCCOB is nothing short of inspiring. Seeing people from all over the world coming to support, assist, and learn from the dedicated staff at SANCCOB makes me enormously thankful that Mystic Aquarium supports this project.
Jan 7, 2018: Today was a big day for me in Pen 3! When I arrived at the center I found Rhiannon, a Bird Rehabber, and Sabiyah, a SANCCOB intern, weighing and collecting blood samples from each of the penguins in the pen. I was eager to throw on my gear and jump in to help. These weekly blood draws allow the staff to perform important diagnostics that help them in deciding if a penguin is ready for release. Each penguin’s blood results need to be examined in order to ensure they are healthy enough for release. Additionally, each penguin’s feathers are meticulously examined following their hour-long swim to ensure they are waterproof. This is important for their survival while swimming in the cold waters off of the coast of South Africa when foraging for food. Lastly, each penguin was weighed. Each blue must weigh at least 2.6kg and each adult must weigh 2.8kg in order to be eligible for release. The veterinarians will examine the blood results in the next couple of days. Hopefully this will result in some of these penguins being released back into the ocean.
Today I also helped with some other tasks around the center to ensure that not only do the birds receive the proper care, but also that the center remains neat and tidy. Every day before work begins everyone attends morning meeting where we all receive our pen assignments and any special instructions for the day. I found this to be reminiscent of our volunteer program back at Mystic Aquarium. We also rely on volunteers to help us in caring for the animals and providing an exceptional environment for our animals and guests. SANCCOB also needs to maintain their center for guests or tours coming through to learn about seabirds and the work that they do there. Both SANCCOB and Mystic Aquarium hold education close to their missions. People can’t help endangered species like the African penguin if they are not aware of the challenges they are facing such as oil spills, pollution, over fishing, climate change, and habitat destruction.
As I sign off today, I challenge every reader to look at their own lives and try to identify a simple change you can make to improve the health of our oceans. It can be as simple as reducing our use of single use plastic, or only eating sustainably caught seafood, but if we all work together we can make a difference for our oceans.