Get up close (and underwater) with the penguins at their new Denver Zoo habitat

John Azua, the zoo’s Curator of Birds, said the new enclosure is meant to resemble the penguins’ home in the wild. 

“It has a 10,000-gallon pool with a really state-of-the-art life support system and a wave action machine that gives artificial waves that really allows the penguins to simulate the true swimming that they do off the coast of South Africa,” he said. 

Multiple teams across the zoo’s animal care, horticulture, design, maintenance and marketing departments worked together to envision the penguin’s new home. 

Although the penguins had been a part of the zoo’s Bird World since the 1970s, once that space closed, zoo leaders wanted to find a new home and a new layout for the flock. Azua said they chose the location across from Predator Ridge because the environments of Sub-Saharan Africa and the continent’s southern coast provided such a strong contrast. 

The Denver Zoo has opened its new African penguin habitat. They follow zookeeper Travis Garrett at feeding time, Friday, October 1, 2021

“The African penguins are a staple of the Denver zoo’s animal collection, and it’s a dynamic species that people just love,” Azua said. “People just love penguins. You can see that in the media, you can see that in books. We wanted to keep the African penguins, and we felt that giving them a dynamic exhibit that’s quite a bit larger than they had was really going to benefit the zoo, the people of Denver, and the species themselves.” 

Thursday, on the opening day of the penguins’ new home, a handful of young visitors arrived in penguin costumes, shirts and hats to commemorate the occasion. More than one young guest yelled “penguin!” on sight. 

Although the birds weren’t in a swimming mood this morning, many visitors were taken by the enclosure’s calming blue pool. 

“This three feet to four feet of underwater viewing really is captivating when you see the bird swim,” Azua said. “When you see them as a flock and they go back and forth, it is so tranquil. It’s also great because it’s a great viewing opportunity for kids.” 

The penguins paid close attention to zookeeper Travis Garrett at feeding time.

Only about 5,000 African Penguins are left in the wild, and Azua said there’s still a lot of work to be done to save the endangered species. Like many other animals, African Penguins have been drastically affected by climate change, changes to their habitat and overfishing.

Azua said some of the zoo’s keepers have gone to South Africa to work with a seabird-saving organization known as SANCCOB and share the zoo’s knowledge of caring for the species for decades.