The Penguin Pal
Close encounters with creatures from another climate
It’s lunchtime at the New England Aquarium, and a huddle of penguins is hopping hopefully around Nicole Gosselin, who is clutching a bucket filled with sardines, capelin, smelt, and herring. Gosselin wades through the waist-deep water of the aquarium’s penguin pool and tosses her first sardine to a foot-tall little blue penguin. The feeding frenzy begins.
“When I have my bucket of fish, the birds push each other out of the way to get to me,” says Gosselin (CAS’14), her voice rising above the squawks and splashes. “Some of the birds are a little nippy sometimes because they want a fish, and your fingers look a little like fish. My hands have scars.”
As a penguin colony intern, Gosselin cares for the aquarium’s African penguins, who can sound like braying donkeys; the endangered rockhoppers, famous for their appearance in Happy Feet; and little blue penguins, at only 10 inches high and weighing two pounds, the world’s smallest penguins. The 101 birds are one of the three most popular exhibitions at the aquarium, which draws more than a million visitors a year.
Gosselin first interned at a veterinarian’s office in her hometown of Belmont, Mass., and at the Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass., where she learned how to feed and handle animals ranging from cats and dogs to wild foxes, squirrels, and possums. Last fall, a family friend mentioned the New England Aquarium’s highly competitive internship program working with the penguin colony. She applied and was chosen.
Her workdays start at 8 a.m., when she prepares the penguin’s meals—the birds are served thawed, restaurant-quality frozen fish because it’s cheaper, and the freezing process kills any lingering bacteria—and sometimes she hides vitamins for the birds inside the fish.
Donning a full-body wetsuit and carrying a waterproof clipboard into the water to better record the penguins’ food intake, Gosselin doesn’t flinch as the naturally curious creatures swim around her. If a bird is not eating, it may be a sign that it is sick. Fortunately, that isn’t often a problem; most birds eat 5 to 10 fish a day.
As she approaches the rocky habitat of the rockhopper penguins, a young male grabs a fish with its beak, then tries to sneak back in line for more.
Once the feeding is over, the handlers thoroughly clean the penguin tank by spraying the walls and rocks. “The penguins poop a lot, so there is lots of guano everywhere that we have to clean up to protect against zoonotic diseases,” Gosselin explains. Then it’s lunchtime for the humans, followed at 2:30 by lunchtime for the penguins and another cleaning. By 4 p.m., Gosselin’s day is done.
There was much for Gosselin to learn about her charges, starting with how to tell the boys from the girls. In nature, it’s nearly impossible, but here, thanks to aquarium zoologists, each penguin wears an ID bracelet—females on their right wing, males on their left. All of the birds have names (Dassan, Roast Beef, and Plum Pudding, among others), and as part of the aquarium’s outreach program, some travel to nursing homes and elementary schools. Some species mate for life, others are a bit friskier. The birds breed in caves built into rocky structures in their pool, and several new chicks are born each year.
Penguins are among the planet’s least graceful creatures on dry land, but the most lissome in water. They typically spend their time swimming in the 150-gallon penguin pool, zooming around at speeds up to 15 miles per hour. The pool’s chilly water is filtered straight from Boston Harbor, so that even with a wetsuit, Gosselin has to watch out for hypothermia.
Last month, the aquarium began the final stage of a five-year, $42.5 million expansion and renovation. When the building is finished next summer, visitors will see a refurbished Giant Ocean Tank (home to 800 marine species, including sharks and a giant sea turtle named Myrtle), touch-screen computers, and a center that focuses on conservation and research.
In the meantime, the Giant Ocean Tank’s denizens are slowly being moved to the penguin pool. The rockhoppers and African penguins were sent to the aquarium’s new $5 million animal care center in Quincy, Mass., during the renovations, and the little blue penguins were moved to a temporary exhibition towards the back of the aquarium, near the New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center.
Gosselin is continuing to volunteer at the aquarium this fall, although just with the little blue penguins. As well as working with her charges, she enjoys interacting with visitors and educating them about the penguins and their environment. She says the internship has solidified her choice of majoring in biology with a preveterinary track.
“I plan to go on to veterinary school or study animal behavior,” she says, “and this internship has made it clear to me that I want to work with animals the rest of my life.”
The New England Aquarium, One Central Wharf, Boston, is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday, Sunday, and most holidays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. By public transportation, take the MBTA Blue Line to the Aquarium stop. Admission is $20.95 for BU students with a valid ID and for seniors (65 and older), $22.95 for adults, $15 for children under 12, and free for children under 3 and NEAQ members. More information can be found here or by calling 617-973-5206.