Saturday, September 22, 2012

Aquarium's backstage tour puts beloved New Orleans penguins in your lap

September 21, 2012
Getting up close with penguins no longer requires an expensive airline ticket to remote spots in the Southern hemisphere. In fact, the only travel hassles involve French Quarter traffic and parking near the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. That's where 32 diving, waddling, tuxedo-clad charmers are waiting for you to show up with a bucket of fish at feeding time.

Beginning Sept. 28, the aquarium will offer intimate, behind-the-scenes tours of the penguins' New Orleans habitat, how their food is prepared and other aspects of care.

Yes, these small-group affairs are pricey: A 90-minute tour costs $125 per person. But a Backstage Penguin Pass gives you access to some unique experiences. During a press preview, I perched amid the fake rocks and nesting areas that surround the birds' 4,000-gallon salt water pool. That's a big change from the usual joys of penguin watching at the aquarium. Instead of pressing my face to a glass wall, trying to catch the eye of a swimming bird, I found myself jostled by these highly social, knee-high creatures as they dipped their heads and shook their beaks in greeting. The birds are noisy, too: One variety, the African black-footed penguin, is sometimes called the "jackass" penguin.

I also got an earful from avian specialist Tom Dyer, a veteran aquarium staffer who helped save the penguins after Hurricane Katrina. (He flew with them in a cargo hold to the Monterey Aquarium in California.) A font of anecdotes, facts and bird lore, Dyer is one of two staffers who will lead the backstage tours.

"The real threat to these birds is environmental. Our African penguins have been on the endangered species list since 2010," Dyer said. "The wild population has diminished by 65 percent in 10 years, due to overfishing and current shifts triggered by global warming. The penguins' food source has moved, but these territorial animals keep coming back to their regular haunts expecting to find their familiar diet."

The aquarium is part of a broad effort to raise and breed both the African black-footed penguin and the less-threatened Rockhopper penguin in captivity. That's not an activity for casual animal lovers, Dyer said. To prevent the spread of avian illnesses, for example, Dyer never shares duties with zookeepers who care for parakeets and other outdoor birds at the aquarium. To monitor the health of his penguins, Dyer and a partner tally each bird's diet, fish-by-fish, at feeding time.

"Birds hide their illnesses by instinct. In the wild, that's a way to keep predators from picking on you," Dyer said. "What a bird can't hide from us is the loss of appetite that comes when one of them is sick."

Dyer is on a first-name basis with all of his charges -- each bird wears a name tag under its wing -- and visitors profit from that familiar relationship. As Dyer cradled one penguin, he let me ruffle its water-slicked feathers to show that the bird was dry and warm underneath.

"This tour isn't just an entertainment option," Dyer said. "I really think it will make people sit up and pay attention when they read about an oil spill or other problems affecting wild penguins. You won't skip to the next story, when you have had a penguin sitting in your lap."

Backstage Penguin Pass:

What: The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas is offering an intimate, hands-on experience with penguins led by the birds' regular caregivers. Tours are limited to six guests, and age restrictions apply.
Where: Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.
When: Backstage tours are on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., beginning Sept. 28. Regular aquarium hours are Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The penguins are fed daily at 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Backstage admission: $125 per person (tour ticket includes admission to the aquarium). For details, go to


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