It certainly was a first for me, watching the Spanish countryside drift by as we travelled down the highway in the Oceanografic van with eight Humboldt penguins and their expert caregivers. We were only five days away from the grand opening festivities at Oceanografic, but eager to bring the birds home and ensure they had time to acclimatize to their upgraded habitat.

The Grand Opening was a significant event for the team at the aquarium. Years of planning and millions of Euros were being invested as we moved to the next chapter in the organization’s journey, improving the facilities and increasing guests’ connection to the ocean.

Oceanografic's penguin habitat gets a revamp for a more natural environment.

Oceanografic’s penguin habitat gets a revamp for a more natural environment.

One of the key priorities during the facility upgrades at Oceanografic was ensuring the health and welfare of the animals in their care. Some species can be sensitive to the noise and dust that is often part of a renovation project and to make sure the animals were not impacted, we took many steps to ensure their well-being.  In the case of the Penguins we moved them offsite. This ensured they had an appropriate interim habitat with adequate space and were far from any potential construction impacts.

When you're riding in a car with these guys, they'll make sure to make their presence known.

When you’re riding in a car with these guys, they’ll make sure to make their presence known.

I would argue the best way to learn about animals is to get up close to them, and riding in a small vehicle with the penguins provided a unique understanding of their diet. The smell of fish immediately filled the vehicle and reminded me of the preferred food of our cargo. And just when I started to adjust to the odour, the birds would remind me of their presence with the occasional vocalization. Humboldt penguins are not what I would describe as a song bird; they have a call that more closely resembles a donkey or a goat!

While most people can identify “a penguin,” few realize the diversity of this group of birds. There are 18 species of penguin worldwide, and many of the wild populations are facing significant challenges. Their largest pressures are linked to two things: The first issue is habitat destruction, as we humans enjoy the beaches where they nest and have developed many of the areas and pushed the birds out of those coastal regions; The second issue is overfishing, we have removed the largest fish from the ocean and have begun fishing down the food chain. As a result, we’re and eating the same small fish that penguins do. These pressures have resulted in dramatic decreases in many penguin populations, but we are seeing some signs of hope.

Breeding programs in zoos and aquariums now provide a genetic reservoir for many species and fundraising efforts have resulted in critical nesting habitat being protected. This ensures places for the birds to nest and the protection of future generations. Aquariums have also launched sustainable seafood programs, helping raise the profile of sustainable fisheries to ensure we are not impacting fish populations to the point were other species that rely on them, including penguins, are at risk of going hungry.[youtube][/youtube]

The birds have settled back into their new habitat, complete with nesting boxes, deeper water and a new beach. We are pleased to share that within a few weeks of returning the Penguins moved into the new nesting boxes and have since have laid several eggs! Soon we will see if the eggs are viable and if the family will continue to grow in their new home.

Dolf DeJong is the vice president of conservation and education at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. He is currently on assignment at the Oceanografic Aquarium in Valencia, Spain, supporting the staff of Europe’s largest aquarium as they expand their conservation and education efforts. The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is a world leader in engaging the public through education on the wonders of aquatic life. We aim to inspire individuals and organizations to make conservation-minded choices for the betterment of our blue planet.


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