The Courier

Meeting the real waddling wanderers!

Gayle Ritchie with zookeeper Eleanor Ballantyne in the penguin enclosure at St Andrews Aquarium.

Penguins are big news this summer, with Maggie’s Penguin Parade taking the world by storm. Gayle meets some real waddling wanderers at St Andrews Aquarium

The summer of 2018 has been all about penguins.

Courier Country has been all a-flutter since the Maggie’s Penguin Parade launched in June and later this month, all 8o giant avian sculptures will be auctioned off to raise vital funds for the cancer charity.

Having written many stories about the fantastic fundraising project and pilgrimaged to almost every penguin sculpture across Tayside and Fife, I felt it was only right that I actually encountered some living, breathing waddling wanderers.

So when I was invited to feed baby Humboldt penguins and their parents at St Andrews Aquarium, I jumped at the chance!

Members of the public can indulge in the experience, too, and I guarantee, you’ll have a whale of a time – just keep your eyes p-p-p-peeled for Jamie!

© Steven Brown
Sprats – the diet of penguins at St Andrews Aquarium.

Meeting up with zookeeper Eleanor Ballantyne, she asked if I fancied feeding the penguin family some of their favourite fishy snacks. Well, of course!

This was rather a stinky experience and one which, thankfully, involved wearing rubber gloves.

First up, I needed to measure the right amount of sprats into a feeding tray and managed to drop one on my shoe. Not a great start.

Approaching the outdoor penguin enclosure, complete with pool, rocks and nesting areas, I felt slightly intimidated when a group of the birds started honking loudly and sizing me up with their beady eyes.

“They love feeding time and they’re very excited to see you,” beamed Eleanor. “Just watch out for Jamie. He sometimes pecks at your legs.”

© Steven Brown
Gayle feeding the hungry penguins.

When I opened the gate, the birds all came waddling towards me at speed, so I wasted no time in flinging sprats down their necks as quickly as I could. That wasn’t quick enough for greedy Jamie, who (as predicted) pecked at my legs. Ouch!

To be fair, the pecks weren’t sore; they were more like an unwelcome surprise and they didn’t leave any bruise marks.

I even felt a bit sorry for Jamie, who sports a dodgy leg thanks to a birth defect.

“His hip didn’t fuse together properly so it juts out to one side,” explained Eleanor.

“He’s not in pain but it does look awkward.”

© Steven Brown
Penguins are fantastic swimmers.

When you enter the penguins’ territory, there’s a risk you might be pooped on but I was lucky enough to avoid this.

All the penguins here are named after Andy Murray and his family – there’s Andy, William, Jamie, Kim, Roy, Judy and Shirley.

Eleanor’s favourite, Kim, was moulting so she didn’t look quite as glam as her namesake, Andy’s wife.

This is a challenging time for penguins, during which they spend most of their time sleeping to preserve energy and keep their metabolism slow.

© Steven Brown
Humboldt penguin chicks Rally and Ace with mum Andy.
© Steven Brown
The chicks with mum.

The chicks, two-month-old fluffy balls of cuteness, were hanging out with mum and dad inside a special nest enclosure. Their sexes were unknown at this stage because they were too young to have DNA tests taken.

I hurled fish to Andy (mum) and William (dad), which they gobbled down while their babies cheeped away excitedly.

Back inside the centre, I watched via CCTV as the parents regurgitated the fish and fed it to their chicks. It was heartwarming stuff, if a little messy.

© Steven Brown
Gayle (cautiously) feeds the penguins!

Meanwhile, Eleanor, brimming with penguin facts, told me the babies will be able to feed themselves when they reach three months old.

“Humboldts breed in coastal Chile and Peru,” she added.

“Oils on adult penguins’ feathers keep them waterproofed; their coats are like feather dusters coated in Vaseline! They can swim up to 20mph and live for 15 to 20 years.”

Vocalisations vary according to circumstance – to show aggression, recognise family members, demonstrate courtship or bond with the group.

They are the fastest swimming and deepest diving species of any birds and can stay underwater for up to 20 minutes.

© Steven Brown
Gayle hanging out with the penguins. A new career as a zookeeper, perhaps?
© Steven Brown
Gayle feeds the penguins inside the special indoors enclosure.
© Steven Brown
Penguins are brilliant creatures!

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St Andrews Aquarium has sponsored one of the penguins on the Maggie’s Penguin Trail. All 80 penguins will be auctioned to raise vital funds for the Maggie’s Centre in Dundee. The centre, at Ninewells Hospital, costs £540,000 per year to run and the aim is to reach this total. The auction will be hosted at V&A Dundee on Monday September 24. Maggie’s centres provide free practical, emotional and social support for people with cancer and their families and friends. maggiespenguinparade.com

To book a penguin feeding session at St Andrews Aquarium, see www.standrewsaquarium.co.uk