Published: Wednesday, September 7, 2011
SARASOTA - The fish, crabs and sharks at Mote Marine Lab are making way this fall for the arrival of one of the most unusual creatures to ever grace the Sarasota aquatic institute: penguins.
Standing about two feet tall, and sporting a coat resembling a black tuxedo, the warm-weather penguins will be the stars of the show and get their own island exhibit at Mote for about four months this fall.
Two or three pairs of endangered flightless penguins, known as black-footed or African penguins, will waddle into Mote as the featured guests of the marine lab starting Nov. 1 and stay through the end of February. On loan from Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., these penguins are expected to drive major local and tourist traffic to Mote's facilities on City Island.
"There's just a magical quality about penguins," says Virginia Haley, president of the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is promoting the event with Percy the Penguin mascot pins, among other things. "But what's interesting is the way Mote plans to bring science into it."
Numbering in the millions off their native South Africa in 1930, the black-footed penguin population has dwindled to an estimated 120,000. Last year they were placed on the endangered species list, and the birds have more in common with Southwest Florida than one might suspect.
"They face of lot of environmental threats in common with what we're up against on the Gulf Coast," says Nadine Slimak, Mote director of communications. "They've got oil spill-related issues, climate change, rising sea levels and they nest on land up against cliffs. There's not a lot of places for them to go."
One characteristic of the black-footers has led to a less-than-dignified nickname; renowned for their ability to bray like donkeys, the penguins are sometimes known as jackass penguins.
Given the birds' preference for temperate waters averaging 65 degrees, Sarasota in the winter is as good a venue as any for them to chill out. With any luck, says Slimak, the penguins' plight will encourage visitors to adopt their endangered relatives through sponsorships ranging from $30 to $300. A portion of the proceeds will benefit a conservation group, the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds.
Mote has a number of activities planned for the exhibit, called Penguin Island. sleep-overs for children, a "breakfast with the penguins" program and a related documentary — called "City Slickers," about humans and African penguins competing for suburban habitat — will show at Burns Court Cinema as part of the event.
Slimak says Penguin Island is the first of an ongoing series of temporary exhibits designed to draw return visitors to Mote on a more regular basis. Convention official Haley expects the strategy to be a boon for the nonprofit organization.
"Something new is always good," Haley says. "And because it's here on a limited basis, people are going to have to actually make plans to see it, because it'll be gone before you know it."
The buzz formally begins with a black-tie fundraiser on Oct. 29. For more details on Penguin Island, or for volunteer information, contact Mote at 388-4441.