Penguin tour at Norwalk Aquarium
Aquarium tour: Behind-the-scenes look at the aquatic bird colony
Published 2:18 pm, Friday, December 3, 2010
Dobie and Dixie fell in love, and even laid an egg; Phil flirted with Dixie before finding Izzy, his one true mate; and Astro secretly built a rock nest for his sweetheart, Jo.
There's plenty of juicy details to uncover inside the Maritime Aquarium's African penguin colony. But you would never know without taking the All Access Penguins tour, a meet-and-greet with the Aquarium's most popular flippered friends.
The tour takes place weekends during December, and Dec. 26 to 31, and offers a behind-the-scenes look at the lovebirds -- Dixie, Dobie, Izzy, Moby, Edgar, Violet, Astro, Sundae, Jo and Phil -- who roost in a heated tank on the Aquarium's riverfront courtyard. In addition to romantic tidbits, visitors will learn about penguin care, feeding, habitat, anatomy and lifespan, among other subjects.
Each day of the tours, at noon and 3 p.m., a general admission ticket will be drawn for a free, surprise penguin visit.
The tour offers one last chance to get up close and personal with the toddling celebrities before they bray goodbye to the Aquarium on Jan. 2. Bill Kennedy, a tour guide for All Access Penguins, said it's as close as you can get to the birds without actually petting them.
"People feel like they are part of the Aquarium, rather than just visitors," he said of the tour, which lasts about 30 minutes in the afternoon and an hour for morning sessions. "They are thrilled by it."
On a Sunday afternoon, the Sussman family of Seymour -- Nancy, her son Paul, daughter-in-law Gwyn and grandchildren Hannah and Jacob -- won the drawing and upon presentation of the winning stub, headed backstage to see the penguins.
When Nancy Sussman inquired about the penguins' pink bald spot, Kennedy replied that it is an adaptation that helps dispel body heat. And when Paul Sussman asked about survival rates in the wild, Kennedy explained that the species is under threat from industrial disasters, unlawful harvesting of penguin eggs and disruption of habitats by the scraping of guano, or excrement, which penguins use for nests.
"Penguins are up against a lot of dangers," said Kennedy, adding that the population of African penguins has dropped by as much as 90 percent in the last few decades.
As he fed the penguins, aquarist Elias Venetsanos observed that all of the birds had packed on the pounds, an instinctual response to the approach of winter. On average, penguins eat 30 percent of their body weight a day, Venetsanos added.
"They're just like a teenagers," Paul Sussman joked.
Venetsanos also discussed the various ways penguins show affection -- by digging, preening and bowing and shaking their heads. Sadly, as a result of old age, Dobie and Dixie's egg was infertile. Still, Venetsanos noted that being a monogamous species, their relationship remained strong.
"They will probably stay together for life," he said.
As the tour ended, Nancy Sussman wondered aloud if she could "take a penguin home?" Instead, she was given the next best thing -- a penguin footprint painting and a plush penguin toy from the gift shop. The Sussmans had nothing but positive things to say as they returned from the tour.
"It's so seldom that you get to see the animals up close," said Paul Sussman, a self-described "zoo junkie." "On the tour, you can identify with each individual animal, rather than seeing them as one big species."
"How many people can say they got this close?" chimed in Hannah Sussman, 13. "You can almost touch them."
Hatched at the Great Plains Zoo in Sioux City, S.D. and brought to the Maritime Aquarium almost two years ago, the penguins will soon be on their way to a new aquarium. Visitors and aquarists alike will find it hard to bid adieu to these waddling wonders.
"They are taking a part of me with them," Venetsanos said. "It's going to be painful to see them leave."
"¢ Dobie -- Male, 25, coupled with Dixie. The tallest of the bunch, Dobie has been known to collect pieces of matt for nesting material. He's also a good program bird, as he allows the aquarists to handle him without a fuss.
"¢ Dixie -- Female, 27, coupled with Dobie. Dixie has been faithful to Dobie, despite advances by other penguins. She has widened hips, which creates an awkward gait. But she appears normal when she swims.
"¢ Moby -- Male, 23, coupled with Sundae. One of the most social penguins, he likes to hang out with and court the trainers, and allows them to rub his back. He's also the heaviest and the most aggressive during feeding time.
"¢ Sundae -- Female, 20, coupled with Moby. Like her partner, she is very affectionate towards the trainers and doesn't mind being handled.
"¢ Edgar -- Male, 27, coupled with violet. One of the most patient birds, he waits until the others are done feeding before he feasts. He's territorial and won't let Violet come into their nest until he's done chowing down.
"¢ Violet -- Female, 26, coupled with Edgar. Like Moby, she is aggressive during feeding time. The toughest of the females, she holds her own when challenged by another bird.
"¢ Astro -- Male, 23, coupled with Jo. The most vocal of the group, he has been known to call out to strangers. He's been collecting rocks secretly from the trough, a sign of affection for Jo.
"¢ Jo -- Female, 27, coupled with Astro. She is more skiddish than the others, preferring to keep her distance during feeding time (she opts to catch the food in her mouth).
"¢ Phil -- Male, 27, coupled with Izzy. The shortest of the males, he was the last to find a mate. Later, he met his true love, Izzy.
"¢ Izzy -- Female, 23, coupled with Phil. The most petite of the females, she and Phil are a perfect match. A bit more cautious than her compatriots, she's does not like to be handled.
The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk is at 10 N. Water St. "All Access Penguins" tours will be held Sat, Sun, Dec. 11 and 12, 18 and 19 and Dec. 26-Jan. 2 at 9 a.m. $32.50, $22.50 for members (includes Aquarium admission). Tour is limited to 12 people. Children must be at least 7 years old and children younger than 15 must be accompanied by an adult. 203-852-0700, ext. 2206, www.maritimeaquarium.org.
Each day of the tours, at noon and 3 p.m., a winning ticket will be drawn from the Aquarium general admission tickets. The ticket number will be announced and posted in several locations in the Aquarium. Upon presentation of the winning ticket stub, all visitors of any age will be awarded a free penguin visit.