Stranded on a beach in Uruguay amid hundreds of oil-drenched dead birds, the little penguin’s luck was running out. Then British schoolteacher Tom Michell rescued him, prompting an extraordinary transformation in both their lives…
I had only been strolling along the seashore for ten, maybe 15, minutes on that beautiful afternoon when I caught sight of the first of them: black, unmoving shapes.
As I walked on they grew in number until the whole beach appeared to be covered with black lumps in a black carpet. Hundreds of oil-drenched penguins lay dead in the sand.
Each wave that broke piled more birds on top of those already there. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw movement. One valiant bird was alive: a single surviving soul struggling amid all that death.
Although it was lying on its belly and covered in tar, the penguin was moving its wings and holding its head up. I felt a surge of hope.
Could it survive if cleaned? I had to give it a chance. I lifted the furious creature, which was twisting and turning in its efforts to escape, and discovered for the first time how heavy penguins can be.
Carrying the bird at arm’s length was exhausting work, but I had to get it back to my friends’ apartment, where I was staying on holiday, to clean him up.
The Bellamys’ flat was elegant and tasteful – the last place to bring an oil-soaked penguin. After filling the bidet with warm water, I began to clean him with washing-up liquid. Suddenly the exhausted penguin lay still.
Within moments, from being terrified and hostile, it became a docile and cooperative partner in this clean-up operation. It was as if the bird had suddenly understood that I was trying to rid it of all that disgusting oil rather than commit murder.
I drained the bidet and filled it with warm water. The penguin’s eyes no longer bulged like goldfish bowls. It was turning its head from side to side, regarding me quizzically.
At the end of an hour’s work I had a recognisable penguin. His black feathers were black again and his tummy feathers, though not pristine, were at least a greyish sort of white.
Slowly my focus moved beyond the bird to the bathroom. His shaking after each wash had deposited a thin film of dirty detergent, oil and water over a fair proportion of the walls and over me, too.
I placed him in the bath while I cleaned both the bathroom and myself and then I prepared to release the penguin back into the sea.
I expected him to rush in and swim away, happy to be free once more. But he didn’t. He walked straight back to my side.
Worse still, he was looking at my face, directly into my eyes. I picked him up and carried him out on to the rocks and told him he couldn’t come with me. I waited for a large wave and skipped back up to a higher point. He disappeared from view but after a few moments there he was again, running up the beach after me.
I had no choice but to take him back with me. Not just to the flat, but to Argentina, where I was teaching at a boys’ boarding school in Buenos Aires…
On the day following our return to college, I put the penguin out on the terrace while I had a bath before breakfast.
The time had come. I had to tell the college staff about Juan Salvador (as I had named him). It was quite apparent that he wasn’t about to drop dead; in fact, on the contrary, he appeared to be thriving on a diet of fish-market sprats and was utterly content living at my effort and expense.
He didn’t appear to be looking for ways to escape or to be pining for the company of other penguins. His friendly, enthusiastic and inquisitive behaviour was really very endearing.
Once the news was out, Juan Salvador and I received a near-continuous dribble of visitors throughout the day.
After dinner my peers sat on chairs on the roof terrace and, as the port was passed to the next person on the left, the bag of sprats was passed to the next on the right. Juan Salvador captivated the assembly by running to each person as they held up a fish for his delectation. That was the first of so many times when I observed how completely at ease he was with humans.
He would greet visitors to his terrace with warmth. A guest would feel as though he had just arrived at the house of an old and valued friend.
On that first night, the penguin had been standing by me and appeared to be wondering if, possibly, there was room for just one more sprat, when I noticed his eyes flicker and his head nod. He fell fast asleep, although still standing up, gently leaning against me, replete and apparently totally at peace with the world.
The following day was the last before the return of the students so I decided to see how my new compadre would cope with a walk and some more motivating exercise than the confines of the terrace allowed.
I carried Juan Salvador out on to the grass, where we walked slowly under the eucalyptus trees.
Wherever I went he followed, staying within a few feet of me at all times. With growing confidence I walked faster and the penguin ran at full speed to keep up. For penguins, running involves holding their wings out and rotating their bodies to maximise the distance of each pace; few people can resist laughing at the sight.
When we arrived back at the school house, I walked up the two steps to the front door. The penguin, however, bumped into the first step as though he hadn’t seen the obstacle. He bounced back and sat down. I picked him up and carried him inside.
He was always happy to be carried and never struggled to get away. My flat was at the top of a grand flight of solid wooden stairs. I began to climb and turned to see what he would do next.
Again he bounced off the bottom step but this time he studied the obstacle, first with one eye, then with the other, until suddenly he appeared to understand.
Without further ado he walked back to the step and hopped up, landing on his belly on the first tread, bumping his head on the next riser. Undeterred he stood up and hopped up the next step, but this time he landed diagonally across the step on his tummy and then repeated the process, zigzagging up behind me.
Hugely impressed by Juan Salvador’s astuteness I wanted to see how he would manage descending and ran back down the stairs.
Without hesitation he launched on to his belly and tobogganed – bump, bump, bump – down the flight of stairs at great speed, came to a sliding stop and stood up. While he was never destined to be the fastest ascender, he could come down a single flight faster than anybody and I was later to discover that, unbeknown to me, the boys had arranged races against the bird and he won every time!
The boys were delighted to be allowed to feed him and very soon I had volunteers to wash down the terrace regularly and buy fish from the market each day.
Responsibility can so often bring out the best in youngsters and there was no shortage of willing helpers ready to let the ‘best’ be brought out of them by tending to the needs of Juan Salvador.
On every occasion that he heard boys going by, the penguin would animatedly run up and down his terrace, straining to see, and invariably some of the boys would go up to him and talk to him and feed him fish.
It wasn’t long before a group of ‘off-sick’ students asked if they could take Juan Salvador with them as they exercised around the fields while the others were playing rugby.
Why he always stayed on his side of the touchline and remained close to his companions I cannot say, but he attended many rugby games with different minders and, though he would rush up and down the touchline, keeping close to the play as though keen to miss none of the action, never did he encroach on to the pitch or get too close.
It didn’t take long for the under-14 team to realise that a penguin was precisely the sort of macho mascot that a fearless rugby team needed to strike dread into the opposition.
From the very first day, one youngster in particular wanted to help with the care of Juan Salvador – Diego Gonzales, a diffident, shy 13-year-old who gave the impression of being frightened of his own shadow.
He was not academically gifted and in the competitive atmosphere of college his shortcomings were always apparent.
For the majority of the boys, swimming wasn’t a major sport, mainly because it wasn’t rugby. It hadn’t been a notably warm start to the season that year so by the end of the pool’s first fortnight in operation the water wasn’t particularly inviting.
As soon as the evening swimmers had departed, I signalled Diego and two of his friends who had been exercising Juan Salvador on the fields nearby to bring him to the enclosure so that we could see if he would swim.
No one would object if he fouled the water just before it was drained (it was completely devoid of any filtration system and had to be emptied every two weeks to be cleaned) and if he refused to get out I would be able to retrieve him once the pool was emptied.
He had been living at college for several months by then and in all that time he had never been able to swim. Diego placed him next to me and, as I walked to the water’s edge, Juan Salvador followed in my footsteps.
He surveyed the still water without apparently comprehending its nature. ‘Go on!’ I said, miming a dive and gesticulating a swimming action.
With a single flip of his wings, he flew like an arrow from a bow into the water across the pool and collided headlong with the wall on the opposite side. There were groans and sharp intakes of breath from the boys.
Juan Salvador rose to the surface, spluttering and dazed, but then he ducked below the water again. Using only a stroke or two he flew at great speed from one end of the pool to the other, executing dramatic turns before touching the sides. It was a bravura performance of aquatic acrobatics.
Diego and the boys were as bewitched as I was. Then Diego asked quietly if he could swim with him, ‘Please!’
‘All right, then, but be quick.’
I had never seen him so animated before. Without hesitating or pausing for final confirmation he dived into the cold greenish water and swam magnificently, so elegantly that their pairing wasn’t ridiculous at all. The penguin swam around him, spiralling the boy.
They appeared to be synchronising their movements and swimming in unison. I had never seen such interaction between two different species.
The demonstration gave all the appearance of having been choreographed to highlight their respective skills, as in a duet for violin and piano. The penguin swam around the boy making figures of eight as though he were spinning a cocoon or weaving a spell. Words cannot describe the magic that was in the air and the water that evening.
For technical merit and artistic performance this display would have scored full marks from any judge, but that was not all.
After they had got out of the pool, standing quietly chewing the corner of his towel was a well-built, lithe youth who, I was confident, could outswim almost anyone in college. It was a revelation. Diego wasn’t that sad little chap we had become used to but a boy with a very special talent.
‘Diego you swim really well – brilliantly, in fact!’
‘You think?’ Diego was looking directly at the bird. I followed his gaze and saw Juan Salvador preening his feathers with his beak as though nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. I also observed with huge pleasure that he was as dry as a bone. The waterproofing stripped by the detergents I had used to clean him was at last fully restored.
As we returned to the school house, Diego talked nonstop and told me that his father had taught him to swim at their home on the river. It was the first time I had heard him open up and talk freely about his life and his home.
That was one of those extraordinary seminal moments that makes teaching so worthwhile. There had been a rebirth, a new beginning. The ugly duckling had become a swan and the most astonishing part was that the boy had not yet perceived that his life was on the cusp of a radical change. Overnight he appeared to grow three inches. Even his clothes seemed to fit him better. He had earned the respect of his peers.
Over the next few weeks he improved academically and became a popular boy. Success breeds success. When the swimming gala was held the results were as everyone anticipated. He won every race and broke every college record. Diego was a hero and everyone wanted to be his friend – and Juan Salvador, the extraordinary penguin, had had something to do with it.
Tom Michell looked after Juan Salvador for a year until the penguin died suddenly in 1977. Tom has now retired from teaching and lives in the UK. This is an edited extract from Tom’s book The Penguin Lessons, which will be published by Penguin (of course!) on 5 November, price £9.99*. For an exclusive video clip of Juan Salvador swimming in the school pool, go to mailonline.co.uk/you