Friday, June 4, 2010

Bigger is better: Penguin exhibit at the Sea Life Park Tokyo

Within the last year I have visited sixteen penguin exhibits - mainly because of a penguin project I have been working on. I made the following observation: the larger the water body the more birds I saw in the water. Water motion, like waterfalls, jets, waves etc. also seem to be a major factor.

Sure, sixteen random visits are not a study, and it might have been all coincidental. But during my recent visit to Japan I came across four penguin exhibits, quite by chance and at different times, and these four exhibits mirrored my observation perfectly.
Of these four exhibits, three were rather small and all penguins were just standing on land, except for one where a few birds of the flock enjoyed water jets in a shallow pool.

The fourth exhibit however had a huge pool - probably the largest penguin pool I have seen in my life - and a wave machine. There all birds were in the water. This exhibit is located at the Sea Life Park Aquarium, Tokyo, and I will show it here.

Below is video that I shot at the underwater window. Seeing all these animals moving in a flock was  impressive.

Although the pool was huge the penguins loved swimming near the window and these curious animals seemed to be as interested in the visitor as they were in the birds.

On display were Humboldt penguins  mixed with Rockhoppers, and in an area seperated by a fence they had a flock of Fairy penguins.
I didn't noticed the Rockhoppers when I was visiting but when I looked closer at the photo below I noticed that this is not a Humboldt penguin.


While this exhibit impressed me for its size, I was underwhelmed by what it had to offer the visitors. There was only one underwater viewing window and none for the Fairy penguins. The window had a high ledge, too high for smaller kids unless they were lifted right on it. And the upper window edge was rather low. Look at the guy on the left of the photo below and see how his eye level, water level and the upper window edge are on the same height. The underwater viewing was only accessible by staircases.

What was good was the length of the slightly concave window: ideal to observe the animals on their underwater flight.

The above water viewing was so high above the water table that it made it less interesting to observe the animals. The boy in the photo leaning over the railing is at least 2.5 meters (8') above the birds. There was no visitor viewing near the nest boxes which were all tucked away at the end and to the back of the exhibit.
However, despite these short comings I enjoyed my stay at this exhibit and I liked it a lot for what it had to offer the birds. I was particularly impressed by the shear number of birds doing their synchronized swimming pattern: simply amazing! Here is a video clip that shows it from above:

The Fairy penguins are separated by a fence from the Humboldts and Rockhoppers.
In the background of the photo below you can see the next boxes. (You might need to click on it and look at the enlarged version)

On the video below you can see the wave action at the beach. The wave  is somewhat lost at the underwater viewing window, despite the fact that the top of the window is right at water level and I thought you could easily see the waves zooming by. But maybe the pool is too big, or the waves are too small?

Below I added notes to a satellite photo from Google Maps to give you an overview. From the photo I figured the pool measures about 35 meters (115') in length, and has a width of about 7 meters (23'). The land part of the exhibits is at least another 10 meters (33') passed the pool.

I couldn't tell whether this was a salt or fresh water exhibit.

I was there in April when it was still too cold for mosquitoes. However I heard that mosquitoes can become quite a nuisance even in the Tokyo Metropolitan area. I didn't see any traps or fans or other physical devices to deal with them. I assume that the birds are either treated with medicine or the avian malaria doesn't exist in Japan.

Bumblefoot or Pododermatitis
I once read that all diseases can ultimately traced back to the lack of oxygen in the tissue or organ. The source of this information might be somewhat flaky - a note pinned up in a yoga studio or a caption in some health magazine, I don't remember. But if this statement is true, than nothing would be better to prevent the bumble foot disease - a problem not uncommon with penguins in captivity - than exercise that gets the blood circulating and with it the oxygen. But if the penguins are spending hours on end standing on land because the water is not enticing enough for them to take a swim, the disease might be predetermined.

How does this effect the design of a penguin pool? For me it means: make the water as interesting as possible with jets, waves, obstacles, arches, varying water depth, large size pool for speeding longer stretches and easy turning radius, and having the right temperature, or maybe give them something interesting to look at underwater like a peek in the food prep room or a predator tank, or simply windows where they can observe the visitors.

Another benefit: Active animals are more fun to watch.

For all photos and videos above: @2010