Watching the penguins at Sea Life Sydney Aquarium glide effortlessly through the water, the first impression is one of grace.
But when you’re centimetres away from them inside their enclosure, that illusion is swiftly shattered. On the ice they waddle and wiggle, trip over, start fights for no reason, randomly break into (loud) song and carry on like overexcited teenagers. In short, they’re hilarious.
The aquarium’s new Penguin Passport experience is designed to give people a close encounter with the 26 gentoo and eight king penguins in the colony – and better understanding of their behaviour. To begin the 75-minute tour, our guide Sarah walks us through the Macquarie Island-themed exhibit, offering a huge number of penguin facts. Did you know gentoo penguins “propose” by presenting their potential mate with the smoothest pebble they can find?
We move on to the filter and food-prep rooms to learn how the enclosure works and dress in the appropriate snow gear – think heavy pants with attached rubber boots and warm polar-fleece jumpers. The health of the penguins is taken seriously: you can’t have contact with other birds in the 24 hours before the experience and though we don’t touch the penguins, we’re asked to wash our hands with soap and iodine.
Finally it’s time to step onto the ice. Separated from us by only a hip-high glass barrier, some of the gentoos come over to investigate the intruders. These guys are particularly inquisitive – and cheeky. Reta demands senior penguin trainer Tish blow bubbles for him and then strikes a perfect pose for the camera, covered in the translucent orbs. Magic bows to Chop, indicating he fancies her, and receives a sharp flipper slap for his efforts. Pink Lady has become enamoured with gumboots and continually bows at the keepers’ feet, waiting patiently for them to return his affections. They reach up to 76cm tall and gentoos are known for their charisma.
The regal kings are more controlled. The second-largest penguins in the world, they reach about a metre tall and are far less gregarious than their colony-mates. Only one wanders over about halfway through our time with the colony – the other kings stay in the water during our 20 minutes inside. With her perfect posture, Aurora is far more dignified than the rowdy gentoos. That is, until she tires of the humans and returns to the water with a loud belly flop. Even the kings are more graceful off land.
Book Penguin Passport online or call 1800 199 657. Children must be aged 14 years or over to take part and children under 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
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