World’s smallest penguins will make a splash at Birch Aquarium starting next year

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It will be the first time in the La Jolla aquarium’s century-plus history that it’s housed seabirds.

Wander inside La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium by next summer and you’ll be able to see the world’s tiniest penguins and learn how their fate is tied to that of our oceans, the aquarium announced Sept. 14.

Sixteen little blue penguins will live in a new outdoor habitat that will open by summer 2022, with construction to begin Monday, Sept. 27. The aquarium will be closed to the public for the construction through Thursday, Sept. 30.

This will mark the first time the 116-year-old Birch Aquarium has housed seabirds. Their addition is part of a shift from using aquariums to draw oohs and ahhs to sparking conversations about the health of the natural world, according to Harry Helling, the aquarium’s director.

“Our field needs to and is pivoting [in] a world that itself is changing, confronting enormous challenges,” Helling said. “That has a lot to do with the fact that the issues we face as a planet have become more urgent over the last decade.”

Birch Aquarium, run by UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, draws about 500,000 visitors a year and is home to 6,000 animals.

The penguin exhibit, known as the Beyster Family Little Blue Penguins habitat, was made possible in part by the family’s $1 million gift. It’s also the result of planning that began in 2015, when aquarium staff began thinking of new ways to get visitors excited about conservation, according to director of animal care Jennifer Nero Moffatt.

She said penguins were an obvious candidate because of their quirky charisma. The flightless tuxedoed birds waddle across land like infants taking their first steps. But once they reach water, their torpedo-shaped bodies rocket through the sea with an ease that would make Olympic swimmers envious.

“It’s so easy to just look at them and have joy and delight,” Moffatt said. “We want people to have an understanding that these are birds and they’re not any different than the birds that are represented here in Southern California.”

Visitors will get to see the penguins feeding and breeding, squawking and squabbling in a habitat that includes an 18,000-gallon pool as well as a rocky and sandy shore. The exhibit can house up to 40 penguins, and aquarium staff hopes the birds will form a successful breeding colony.

Little blue penguins, named for the blue sheen of their coats, are native to southern Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. The tiny birds stand no taller than a foot and weigh no more than 3 pounds, but they eat 20 percent of their body weight each day. That would be like the average American man eating 40 pounds a day.

Researchers estimate there are 1 million little blue penguins worldwide, and they’re not a threatened species. But that could change, Moffatt said, as other penguin species are declining due to ocean pollution, reduced food sources and other factors likely to worsen in coming years. That makes tracking penguin populations a useful way to gauge ocean health.

“We will use this as a platform to talk about local seabirds and the way we use local seabirds to understand the health of our local ecosystem,” Helling said. ◆