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Amy Graves with Gentoo penguins at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. “The Gentoos will walk right up to you and give you the penguin version of ‘good morning,’ ” says Graves, the aquarium aviculturist.
Courtesy photo
Amy Graves with Gentoo penguins at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. “The Gentoos will walk right up to you and give you the penguin version of ‘good morning,’ ” says Graves, the aquarium aviculturist.

Follow the penguins to Tennessee Aquarium

By Patrice Stewart · 340-2446

When the days get hotter and hotter, children are bored and adults are edgy, it’s time for some cool summer fun.

One intriguing place to chill out is the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, where the newest gallery feature is a look into the chilly world of the penguin.

You can even touch the cold pools containing about 20 Gentoo and Macaroni penguins — two species of cold-climate penguins from the sub-Antarctic islands near the South Pole.

When you enter the “Penguins’ Rock” area that was recently added to Ocean Journey, you will be in an interactive gallery that allows you to peer into the penguins’ world both above and below the water.

Watch these active birds as they dive into their 18,000-gallon pool of 45-degree water to ride the waves. A special wave machine creates the current that rolls across near floor-to-ceiling windows.

While they look as if they’re waddling across snow and icy surfaces in movies, this underwater view lets you check out their flippers used for speed and agile feet and tails for steering and braking.

Five pairs of Gentoo penguins, the third largest species of penguin, are in the exhibit. They are 30 to 35 inches tall, with white markings around the eyes and over the head. There also are five pairs of Macaroni penguins, which are the largest of the crested species and range from 25 to 28 inches in height. They have distinctive yellow feathers on their heads.

The aquarium aviculturist who works with them daily says they are friendly, noisy birds.

“The Gentoos will walk right up to you and give you the penguin version of ‘good morning,’ ” said Amy Graves.

It begins with a slight dip of the neck. The head goes down and then back up, and when the beak opens, a friendly call emerges, she said.

“They will give me the greeting call over and over again,” said Graves.


A Macaroni penguin at the Tennessee Aquarium.
Courtesy photo
A Macaroni penguin at the Tennessee Aquarium.
Communication is important in the penguin world so that Mom can find Dad, and both parents can locate wandering baby penguins, Graves said. Each voice is distinct and can be pinpointed in colonies of 80,000 or more birds in the Southern hemisphere.

Visitors to Penguins’ Rock can try to separate one penguin voice from thousands in one of the interactive features. They can also, as well as watching videos showing penguins in their habitats around the rocky coastlines of sub-Antarctic islands, checking out their chilly waters in the touch pools, going on a penguin fact-finding scavenger hunt, and comparing themselves to life-size models of three different species.

‘Surfer penguins’

Graves said her “surfer penguins” get excited when the wave machine comes on. “They jump in at one end, swim through the waves to the other end, jump out and run back to the other end to surf again, just like kids.”

While simply watching these penguins is fascinating, you’ll also learn about oil spills, global warming, habitat destruction and other problems that threaten the survival of penguins.

Aquarium president Charlie Arant said that while the penguins’ story is one of “fun and fascination, it is equally about human intrusion into natural habitats.” He said the arrival of the penguins “sets a new high-water mark in fulfilling our mission to inspire wonder and appreciation for the natural world.”

The penguins on display are not from the wild or an endangered species; they are part of a breeding loan program from SeaWorld in San Antonio.

Trained aquarium volunteers are on hand to answer questions about the penguins and explain how the next time you come back, you might see parents building a nest, an egg or a baby penguin. The Gentoo mother, for example, lays two eggs at a time, usually in October; they hatch in about 34 days.

Penguin Trivia

Did you know?

  • Penguins have a black-and-white tuxedo look for protection. From above, their black back blends in with the dark waters below. From underwater looking up, a penguin’s white belly matches the light sky.

  • Penguins spend nearly 75 percent of their life in the water hunting for food.

  • All 17 species of penguins are great scuba divers, and they don’t need air tanks. Emperor penguins are champions at holding their breath and can stay under water for up to 15 minutes.

  • Penguins may look a bit on the chubby side, but that layer of fat helps insulate them from the cold and provides an energy reserve when food is scarce.

  • Penguins can hear on land and under water, though they don’t have visible ears.

  • Most penguins are monogamous through several breeding seasons. They are good parents, with both males and females helping care for eggs and chicks.

    Source: Tennessee Aquarium

    If you go

    What: New “Penguins’ Rock” exhibit gallery with 20 visitors

    Where: Ocean Journey area of the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga

    When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time) daily

    Tickets: $19.95 for adults and $10.95 for children 3-12, including both Ocean Journey and River Journey sections; the IMAX theater next door is showing the 3D movies “Deep Sea” and “Dinosaurs Alive,” and you can save a few dollars with a combination ticket for the aquarium and 3D movie

    Information: (800) 262-0695 or online at

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