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Got $50,000? You can name a tiny penguin at Birch Aquarium

Birch Aquarium in La Jolla soon will be home to an exhibit of little blue penguins, which are barely a foot tall.
(Courtesy of Birch Aquarium)

The money will help underwrite a habitat for the smallest of penguin species.

UC San Diego’s Birch Aquarium in La Jolla is selling the naming rights to its little blue penguins for $50,000 each to help underwrite a habitat for the seabirds.

The aquarium says it has already sold the rights to five of the 10 “little blues,” which will become the centerpiece of the largest new exhibit that Birch has created since it opened 30 years ago. It will debut Friday, July 1.

The names will be revealed in April during a campaign to promote the $2.8 million habitat, which will be the only one west of the Rockies to feature the smallest of all penguin species. They are generally less than a foot tall and weigh about 3 pounds.

“Little blue penguins are charismatic and, by naming them, we hope to allow our guests — and, in fact, our entire community — to connect more deeply and in different ways with the exhibit’s content,” said Jennifer Moffatt, the aquarium’s senior director of animal care, science and conservation.

“We hope these deeper connections will inspire environmental awareness, stewardship and even action.”

Little blue penguins can dive 230 feet to search for food.
Little blue penguins can dive 230 feet to search for food.
(Courtesy of Birch Aquarium)

It’s not unusual for aquariums, zoos and wildlife parks to solicit the public for modest contributions to help preserve and study animals. The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance enables supporters to symbolically adopt everything from African penguins to Sumatran tigers for as little as $25.

It’s less common for an institution to sell the naming rights for specific animals for a large sum. The Los Angeles Zoo is among those that do it, charging from $1,000 to $25,000 for naming rights.

This is the first time Birch has sold animal naming rights. The number of the aquarium’s visitors fell to 110,460 in fiscal 2020-21 as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the aquarium to close for months. Two years earlier, it had a record 496,651 visitors.

The money Birch is soliciting is meant to pay for animal care, conservation and science at a small seaside aquarium that serves as the public display space for UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

There have been discussions over the years about doing a major overhaul of the La Jolla facility. But the recent focus has been on creating a habitat for little blue penguins, nocturnal creatures that scientists say evolved in New Zealand and spread to south Australia and Tasmania.

They are stubby waddlers that don’t fly. The upper parts of their body, especially their head and back, feature eye-catching colors that vary from indigo blue to near black.

The penguins also are known for their loud vocalizations, which range from peeps and gurgles to menacing growls and long, spooky cries.

They spend part of their time burrowing into soft coastal grasslands, creating a refuge from the wind and predators. But they spend most of their time at sea foraging for food. On average, they dive about 800 times a day, going as deep as 230 feet. By comparison, emperor penguins — the largest of all penguins — can descend 1,500 feet.

“The blue have a fun personality,” said Kayla Strate, lead penguin aquarist at Birch. “One day, you’ll see a couple of them preening with affection. The next day, they’re chasing each other into burrows. It’s like watching a drama unfold. I am beyond grateful that donors are helping us with this.”

The aquarium’s new habitat will include a large, windowed pool where visitors can watch the animals swim. ◆