I love penguins. I visited Cape Town around the holidays last year and one of the highlights was hanging out with the penguins on Boulder Beach, I loved them so much that I went back several times. When browsing places to visit on my trip to New Orleans I found myself on Yelp reading a review of the Audubon Aquarium that raved about the “Backstage Penguin Pass” accompanied by a photo of a penguin on a person’s lap. I didn’t even read the full review before jumping over to the aquarium’s website to find out how I could get my penguin love on.
The backstage penguin tour is offered a few days out of the week, and allows up to 6 people at a time to participate in feeding the penguins followed by some intimate hands on time with a couple of the birds in a small classroom. Regular admission to the aquarium is $25, and with this penguin experience a ticket costs $125. It was a steep price, but I ran it by Jason and Erik who I was in New Orleans with (the two were there for work and I tagged along as a sort of entertainment planner), and to my surprise it took no convincing to get them on board. My only concern at that point was that I wanted to make sure that we would not be supporting an inhumane program, that it wasn’t a penguin petting zoo at the birds’ expense.
Our tour was led by Darwin, a staff biologist as passionate about penguins as anyone could possibly be. Darwin knows all of the penguins by name and has raised several of them from chicks, birds that are now 10+ years old (there are a few much older birds, one is 34). The penguins interact with Darwin as if he is just another penguin, we witnessed them cooing, nuzzling, grooming and even attempting to mate with him. Because these birds were raised hand fed by humans in captivity they are not just comfortable with human interaction, they genuinely enjoy it.
We learned the sad truth about how endangered the African cape penguin is. The population of the birds I saw firsthand in South Africa have been drastically declining due to humans overfishing the fish their diet relies on. It was extremely sad to hear that scientists are predicting their extinction from the wild within the next 15 years if overfishing and other factors threatening their population continues as it is. The bright side of penguins living in captivity is that the penguins living in places like the Audubon Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium can live long lives of 20-40 years old as compared to in the wild currently only 8-10 years. We learned that penguins are a great candidate for the offspring of captive populations being reintroduced into the wild. This means that should wild African penguins go extinct, if later the overfishing issues become addressed, then the babies of captive penguins can be used to refresh the missing wild population.
When I asked what I could do to help the endangered African penguins, Darwin said that aside from taking steps to lower your carbon footprint, it helps to support programs like this Backstage Penguin Pass at the Audubon Aquarium. The aquarium contributes financially and volunteers with penguin conservation programs in South Africa, such as SANCCOB. Please help African penguins by visiting the penguins at the Audubon Aquarium next time you’re in New Orleans or donating directly to SANCCOB!
There’s a story about these Audubon penguins and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago, which most of them are old enough to have lived through. Following the hurricane and flood, the aquarium lost power and their backup generators failed. Most of the fish at the aquarium died, and the penguins were in danger because the filtration system in their habitat was not running, leaving their pool contaminated with bacteria. FedEx stepped in and flew all of the penguins to the Monterey Bay Aquarium where they lived for several months alongside Monterey’s penguins before being flown back to New Orleans.
After breakfast we pick three birds to take backstage within the staff office (several of the penguins were eager to join us, it was hard to pick just 3!). We wheeled them through the aquarium in a specially made penguin wagon and then let them out to walk freely around the office. Jason and Erik snapped photos of Humpty.