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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 2 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.

Feeding penguins at New England Aquarium, Nicole Gosselin, Boston University college student internships

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.

African penguins, rockhopper penguins, blue penguins, New England Aquarium, Boston

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.

Feeding penguins at New England Aquarium, Nicole Gosselin, Boston University college student internships

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.

Editor’s note: At the time this article was written, the Aquarium was in the final stages of a five-year, $42.5 million expansion and renovation. The work will be complete, and the penguins will be back in their main exhibition area, starting July 1, 2013.

Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

4 Comments on The Penguin Pal

  • Abby C. on 09.12.2012 at 9:46 am

    The aquarium has always been a truly depressing place to visit in my opinion. These penguins, although this article makes it out to seem as though they are treated with great attention and care, are still imprisoned and isolated from their natural habitat. Many institutions, including zoos, aquariums, and even circuses, claim to have interest in preserving species, but I find this a poor excuse for capturing and removing wild animals from their habitats for the interests and entertainment of humans. I’m glad the volunteer cares for the birds’ well-being, but I wish we could simply find it in our hearts to stop intervening in their lives and leave them to the wide open ocean which many of them once knew as home, rather than breeding them and forcing them to grow dependent on humans.

    • Danny B. on 09.26.2012 at 2:10 pm

      I used to feel the same way, Abby. The concept of zoos and aquariums operating solely as a means of entertainment is abhorrent. But in this case your assumption that the penguins are imprisoned is misguided. There are only a couple of penguins currently residing at the aquarium that were “captured” from the wild. Captured also isn’t correct considering these birds were suffering from life-threatening conditions, and over fifteen years later, they’re still healthy. As for the other 97% of the colony, they were all bred at the aquarium as part of the Species Survival Plan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Species_Survival_Plan). This may be the most significant aspect of our aquarium considering our penguins live an average of 100% (!) longer than those in the wild, which is significant considering the current trend of species. We work towards preserving these endangered species, which is necessary due to horrible oil spills, habitat destruction, climate change, and overfishing in oceans across the globe. If we were to release these penguins back into the wild, they would likely die as a result of these factors (the African Penguin species has declined 98% over the past century). We’re not intervening with their lives – the penguins love calling the aquarium home! There are families, mated pairs, and chicks that are reared in a way to prevent imprinting on humans. (Imprinting is a learning process by which a young animal recognizes another animal or object as their parent).

      I often hear visitors make comments like yours, but honestly, the penguins at the NEAQ are SO HAPPY. They aren’t predated, are fed regularly, and are certainly not here to entertain. Volunteers do not handle penguins in order to create the most realistic environment for them. If you watched the video (which frankly, you probably didn’t), this volunteer specifically says her job is not to entertain, but rather to educate about the importance of the species she and the rest of the staff maintain at the aquarium. I wish we didn’t have to build zoos or aquariums, but because of the devastating effect that the human species has had on the environment, we do. It is our job to preserve these wonderful birds.

  • Jason on 09.26.2012 at 7:07 pm

    Danny B, you can’t possibly recreate a penguins wild habitat in captivity. Animals that migrate, have complex social interactions, make decisions to find food and evade predation, can’t possibly recieve the same mental stimulation with fiberglass rocks and flashbulbs. Same goes for sharks- they migrate- sometimes more than 1000 miles, and yet live in a circular tank swimming in endless loops. Some animals just don’t belong in captivity and the aquarium, which is a conservation leader in some respects, has done a poor job leading in the animal welfare area. Many sandtiger sharks, a species currently being considered for ESA listing, have met their fate at the neaq and the shark and ray touch tank doesn’t do anything for conservation of these animals whatsoever. That part certainly should not be supported by Boston University.

  • Les Kaufman on 06.03.2013 at 7:46 am

    The aquarium’s penguins are domestic animals on a mission- a forced mission, admittedly, but a mission whose purpose is to ensure that the world will always host more wild and free than captive penguins and millions of other species as well.

    We face two monumental conservation challenges today, but these have to do with people, not penguins: (1) people do not understand what science is and hence often fear, shun, reject or deliberately ignore its insights; and (2) people are increasingly disconnected from nature intellectually and emotionally, yet wield enormous power to destroy it with every decision that they make. The New England Aquarium and its sister institutions are at war with ignorance and diffidence. They exist to combat these problems, while also contributing directly to conservation of biodiversity in the vanishing wild through their research and conservation programs. People flock to aquariums to relax, and while there, they learn in a manner very different from and more intimate than the more commonplace experience of watching public television nature shows, their other major contact with information about human impacts on the environment.

    When our government, the world’s most powerful, acts aggressively to stem anthropogenic climate change, adopts science-based principles to ensure that society functions sustainably within the global ecosystem, abandons the philosophy of limitless economic growth through ever expanding consumption, and ensures that its citizens act as good global citizens (even if others do not), then we can get on to worrying about our generally very well taken care of domesticated penguin populations.

    Concern for the NEAq’s penguins is a concern for the welfare of individual birds- most likely a misplaced concern- while penguins populations in the wild plummet in the face of existential threats all caused by human ignorance, greed, and selfishensss. What better strategy do you offer for addressing these greater ills? Restoring a few individual domestic penguins to their naturally brutal and abbreviated lives in the wild is not an effective means of ensuring that the world will still have penguins, or rhinos, or cichlid fishes, or even butterflies when our children’s children grab the reins…if they haven’t starved, suffocated, been poisoned, or died of boredom first.

    As Director of Education I was the New England Aquarium’s spokesperson- or apologist if you prefer- for many years, and had to directly engage organizations like PETA (back when we thought that engaging well-meaning fanatics was a productive exercise) on issues of animal welfare. I also led several forums on the relationship between people and other animals (or living things generally). I had to closely examine the rational basis for the continued incarceration of several thousand aquatic organisms in the institution’s living collection. The doubt never goes away- this is a good thing as adaptation requires that we continually question our motives- but the experience left me a strong advocate of conservation education, and a supporter of exhibit and contact animals one means of addressing self-destructive behavior and nature deficit disorder in people.

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