Detroit Zoo gives 1st look at penguins’ new home

Tom Greenwood
Special to The Detroit News

Ever wish you were a penguin?

You will acquire a bad case of penguin envy when the Detroit Zoo’s $29.5 million Polk Penguin Conservancy Center opens to the public on Monday.

Spread over two acres, the new 33,000-square foot, 37-degree chilled penguin habitat offers a 326,000-gallon indoor ocean for the penguins, along with mounds of fallen snow, rock ledges for climbing, soaring ceilings and two acrylic tunnels where visitors can watch the charismatic birds dive, dart and swoop through the water like torpedoes in tuxedos.

“They’re still getting used to having snow,” said Scott Carter, chief life science officer for the Detroit Zoo, as a couple of penguins comically slipped, slid and tumbled trying to climb a massive mound of snow.

“The old exhibit didn’t have snow so they’re learning how to adapt to it. The exhibit also has different types of ledges and terrain so they have to climb and hop to get around. An exhibit with just smooth surfaces is bad for penguin feet.”

The habitat is home to 83 Rockhopper, Gentoo, King and Macaroni penguins, all native to the South Pole and each as funny as a clown and dignified as an ambassador at a state function.

“It is so much fun to watch them,” Carter said. “We walked the first batch over last week, and they immediately began checking out their new home, especially the Gentoo penguins. They acted like they owned the place.”

Located just inside the main entrance to the zoo, the penguin habitat features a nearly 360-degree 4-D video display (it includes arctic blasts, waves and snow) on a descending walkway that places you on deck of the HMS Endurance, the ship that carried Sir Ernest Shackleton on his disastrous journey to Antarctica.

Visitors will be surrounded by the ship as it sails through calm waters and then through a pounding storm that lashed the ship as it battled through the Drake Passage.

“Visitors will feel the wind and will be hit by sea mist,” said Patricia Janeway, director of communications for the zoo. “The planking on the deck of the display came from reclaimed wood from Detroit so it would seem more authentic. We relied on the expertise of designers, display teams, architects plus scientists who studied thousands of penguins in Antarctica to make it as real as possible.”

Up close and personal is the name of the game at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

One level below visitors can dawdle inside an acrylic tunnel and watch as penguins zip by in the 40-degree water. Clumsy on land, in the water their fat-in-the-middle, tapered-at-both-ends designs make them dart through the water like they’re riding an underwater roller coaster.

The pool is 10 times bigger than one at the penguins’ previous home, zoo officials said. The smell of the old exhibit appears left behind as well. The new home is also the deepest aquatic environment anywhere outside the animals’ native Antarctic waters.

At the Drake Passage gift shop, visitors can buy penguin-themed souvenirs, including T-shirts, coffee mugs, books, stuffed animals and even packages of Penguin Party Pasta, which is probably how the Macaroni penguins got their name.

Volunteer at the zoo

As the Polk Penguin Conservancy Center nears its Monday grand opening, the zoo is looking for volunteers to work near the flock.

The center is listed on the zoo’s volunteer application among various positions open to people 18 and older, with further details available at orientations scheduled through out the year.

For more information on the opportunity, go to the zoo’s volunteer website or contact the volunteer services department at (248) 541-5717 ext. 3802 or