I met the coolest group of penguins this side of Antarctica over the weekend.
My best friend Janabeth and I visited the Tennessee Aquarium for an upcoming magazine piece I'm writing. While there I stopped by the penguin exhibit, which features both Gentoo and Macaroni penguins. Gentoo penguins have the classic white stripe on their heads, while the macarooni's have yellow feathers in a crest formation on their heads. But their looks didn't matter to me. I loved them all.
Our guide for the morning was Loribeth, an aviculturist at the Aquarium who spends all day working with the penguins, checking their daily habitat rituals and food patterns, looking for anything unusual that could be a health concern, and spending quality time with them.
First she took us to an enclosed platform high above the penguins — the perfect height for observing anything and everything the penguins do. During the day, children who participate in the penguin Keeper for a Day program can come into the observing area and make notes about the penguins all the while learning about their lifestyles.
As Loribeth talked about where the penguins came from (Texas), and how daylight triggers certain patterns in the birds (such as eating and mating), I spotted two Macaroni penguins standing with their backs to the crowd and their wings touching.
"Do penguins mate for life?" I asked her. Both penguins stood motionless, staring at the back wall, wings still touching. Though penguins were waddling around them, some even splashing into the water, both Macaronies didn't move.
Loribeth gave little laugh and informed me that some penguins mate for life and others don't, it all depends on the species.
"But those two penguins there, they are together," she said, motioning to the wing-touching couple.
My heart fluttered. Penguin love? Could there be such a thing?
For those two penguins I believed it. It made me believe in love all over again.
As we were getting ready to leave, I bent down under the series of lights to capture a group photo of the penguins on their rocks. Loribeth graciously offered to let a few of the penguins come closer to us for a better photo. She took us into a back room where the handlers dress to feed the penguins and where the penguins enter and exit the habitat area. Loribeth slipped on a pair of olive green rubber boots and walked down the three stairs leading to the exhibit's side door. She opened the door, called them to come and moved out of the way.
It was like magic. I had never seen anything like it.
The Gentoo penguins waddled in a line, spreading out as they entered the room. They looked left and right, some of them waddling straight toward me while a few of the older, larger penguins took off around the corner.
Flower and Nippers, a penguin couple, came to visit along with their friend Shivers, Blue and Bug.
"They are all friendly. We spend a lot of hands on time with them," she said. "Each colored penguin has a tag on it's arm. That tells us their names, but we can tell by personality who they are without them,” Loribeth said.
I walked down a few of the steps and the penguins came closer to me, waddling to the edge of one step before hopping up onto the next. They hopped all the way into my face, pecking at my camera lens before sliding back down the stairs.
It was Shivers, though, that stole my heart. Still very young, Shivers reacted timidly to my hand, shying away at first. She would waddle close to me, let out a small growl, almost cackling sound (the penguin way of saying hello, I was told) then back up. Shivers's entire body shook, even her beak which quivered back and forth. Loribeth put her hand on Shivers's head to calm her, telling us that the shaking had become the origin of her name.
"The shaking is a sign that's she's not quite mature yet. We noticed that with a few other penguins, though Shivers does it a lot more than the rest," Loribeth said.
I ran my fingers along Shivers's back. She was a feathery wet suit, slick and cool, smelling of salt and fish. Her face turned toward mine and she winked at me. I would have wrapped her in my arms if I could have and taken her home that instant.
"They are like little people," my friend Janabeth said, extending her own hand to Shivers for a quick touch. "So cute."
The room was organized chaos as Loribeth held close to our encounter with Shivers while more Gentoo penguins continued to enter and exit the door. For a moment I was reminded of Disney's The Penguins of Madagascar. Though cartoon characters, those penguins on T.V. seem pretty intelligent. And from what I saw of the Aquarium's penguins, they seemed even more intelligent, fully aware of their surroundings, looking at everything with curious looks of adventure in their eyes.
When it was time to go, Shivers followed me on the steps, as if saying she too wanted to come along for the the rest of my journey. I would have gladly let her tag along.
Sometimes globs of safe paint are placed on the floor for the penguins to waddle through on their way out of the exhibit. They call this penguin art — colorful streaks of waddles and webbed foot prints on white paper. I purchased three pieces, each with a few waddle prints in odd places. I can't wait to have them framed.