Jane Walker says that you can't look at a penguin without smiling. She said: "What's not to love? I was given my first cuddly penguin, named Chilly, when I was about 10 years old – and my fascination with penguins began."
From then on, it's been penguins, penguins and more penguins. Now she works with penguins at Torquay's coastal zoo – but even that is not enough for Jane. Her mission now is to see every species of the bird.
Jane estimates that so far she and Chaz have travelled about 64,000 miles in pursuit of her quest. That's more than twice around the world. It seems that behind every obsessed woman is a pretty amazing man. "I knew I would marry Chaz after only one date and not because of the promise of penguin trips," she said. "We just clicked. Still now when he goes on business trips he always brings me back a penguin. It's also him trawling through the internet for hours in search of the perfect penguin holiday. He really enjoys visiting new countries and the planning, particularly when it works out so well."
About six years after their honeymoon, the couple went to New Zealand, where Jane managed to tick off the yellow-eyed penguin in Dunedin. "We saw them on the beach from a distance. They are very shy and private. We also looked for fiordland penguins near Queenstown, but unfortunately they were nowhere to be seen."
Then her love of penguins changed her life. Ten years ago, the couple visited Living Coasts while on holiday in Devon. She said: "I spent ages talking to the penguin patroller, whose job it was to keep an eye on the wandering birds and make sure people and penguins mixed happily. Driving back home to Birmingham, I told Chaz how much I would love to be a penguin patroller, but I went back to running my celebration cake business."
Remarkably, ten months later Chaz got a job offer to work in Devon to work with boats, which are his passion. Jane's first question was: "How close is that to Living Coasts?" It turned out to be close.
"I sold my cake business and our house and we moved to Devon," she said. "Then I applied to become a volunteer at Living Coasts." In 2007 she started at Torquay's coastal zoo and aquarium, providing cover for penguin patrollers. When a staff penguin patroller left, Jane got the job.
Living Coasts penguin patrollers make sure both penguins and people have a safe and enjoyable experience when they meet. "We answer questions and talk about the penguins and the charity's conservation projects, for example our support for SANCCOB, a South African bird rescue and rehabilitation group that does a lot for African penguins. I also do observations on the penguins for the keepers. "I enjoy telling visitors about the penguins. I particularly love it when children are really interested and ask lots of questions. They love to see the eggs and feathers we keep to show them."
Now she works with penguins every day – it's her dream job. She said: "I know all the macaroni penguins by name, I can recognise their flipper tags and have memorised most of their birthdays.
"As for our African penguins, there are more than 70, but I know over half by name – I know the names of all the others but I can't recognise every single bird.
"We shouldn't have favourites, I love them all, of course, but if I am allowed to pick out a few by name then Solly, Yoyo and Babe, the macaronis, are all characters. As for the African penguins, well, there's Pat our oldest, Kevin, Olive, Charlie... OK, I could name them all."
The 2010 World Cup in South Africa presented Jane with her next opportunity to see penguins in the wild. "Chaz loves football, I love penguins – so he started planning a penguin/football holiday. We based ourselves in Simon's Town, just a five minute walk from Boulders Beach, where we could spend lots of time with the Endangered African penguins in between England matches. I also spent a couple of days working with SANCCOB. I helped with sick and injured wild African penguins."
Jane recalls some penguin incidents.
"Solly on the trolley! The ice-cream trolley used to go past the penguins to get to the Jetty food outlet. One day Solly hopped on as it went through. The delivery man didn't notice until Solly jumped off as he unloaded the ice-cream. The keepers had to carefully herd him back to Penguin Beach."
On another occasion one penguin, Pickle, was in a bad mood and started pecking Jane's legs. "Immediately another, Babe, came running over, chased him off then came back to preen me," she said.
Last November, the couple went penguin-spotting on a cruise around South America and the Falkland Islands and in February this year they flew to Santiago in Chile to spot Humboldt penguins. The couple have now started looking for their next penguin holiday.
"Out of the 17 species, we have nine still to see – and these nine are in places that are more difficult to reach," she said. "Antarctica, Galapagos, Snares Island, Maquarie Island. I'm sure one day we will complete the list, with determination and my love of penguins. Chaz is already looking at trips to Antarctica."