Maybe it’s the way they lead a double life. On land they are funny little people, waddling along like smartly-dressed cartoon characters, amusing and endearing. In water, they are transformed. Suddenly they are torpedo-swift swimmers - you can’t quite explain how they propel themselves with such speed and control. They dart past the underwater windows with a sideways glance that seems to say “Fooled you!”

Penguins are perennial favourites - witness Happy Feet, March of the Penguins, and their many starring roles alongside Sir David Attenborough. Living Coasts is home to one of the largest flocks of penguins in the UK, made up of Africans - officially listed as Endangered – and macaronis. Like all top zoos, this is a place with a mission to inform and inspire. Money goes to Project Penguin, an international exercise to research ways to help penguins in the wild. Living Coasts has links with SANCCOB, the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds.

Zoo keepers tend to cultivate an air of professional detachment rather than the sentimental responses that most of us have towards animals – they have to be practical and they have to be prepared for their charges to move on to other collections. So it’s interesting that, when asked why they like penguins, keepers come up with the sort of answers that anyone might give: “Because they are so comical and always look like they are up to no good,” “Because they are all individual and have their own personalities” and “Because they are awesome!”

Senior Keeper Lois Rowell has worked with this colony since before it relocated from Paignton Zoo: “Keeping penguins is different from keeping most other birds - they nest on or under the ground, they can’t fly and they need plenty of water to swim in, preferably salt water.” They can be difficult for the untrained keeper, but many people love how penguins interact with people, how they respond to and recognise their keepers. They have a fun, happy-go-lucky nature.

“It is harder to keep crested penguins than African penguins,” says Lois. “African penguins live around the south west coast of South Africa, the weather there is not unlike the south west of the UK, although the sea currents are colder. The macaronis come from sub-Antarctic islands where the temperatures are more extreme; they could become overheated here if not carefully managed. They need plenty of shade and we provide their nest area with an industrial fan which sprays them with a very fine mist of cold water when they are nesting and moulting.”

The breeding habits of macaroni penguins are a little unusual. They lay a first egg which is only about 60% of the size of the second. This first egg is usually kicked out of the nest and a second egg is laid approximately 5 days later. It is quite important for staff to keep track of who is on which egg. The first egg has less chance of being fertile than the second.

The penguin colony at Living Coasts is quite large; it’s a job to keep track of who is nesting and when they hatch chicks and if the chicks are healthy and well fed. 

Lois: “The African penguins are burrow nesters so when we do a nest check it means we have to lie down on the beach in front of each burrow and peer in using a torch. This can be quite hazardous if the penguin objects, as they have very sharp beaks. I have had a torch broken by an angry penguin!”

“We clean and disinfect the burrows once a year after nesting - this means digging each tunnel out - it’s quite strenuous, smelly work. Then we need to collect and provide large amounts of fresh sticks for the new season. The macaroni penguins build large nests of pebbles - these are removed, disinfected and stored until the beginning of the new season.”

What do you have to look out for when you are caring for penguins? “As with any birds which live in colonies, some individuals are more outgoing than others. It is important to ensure the quieter, more timid birds are receiving their fair share of food and attention, nesting sticks or stones and a place of their own to nest. The keepers need to be vigilant at all times, especially with the African penguins as these will naturally be out of sight in their burrows on a regular basis.

Living Coasts has developed a reputation for being good at keeping penguins. What’s the secret? “Well, it’s partly due to the many years’ experience on the keeping team and partly due to the enclosure design. The sand area for the African penguins is very deep, so they can dig down into it as they naturally would to nest.” There are around 400 tonnes of sand at Living Coasts, most of it on Penguin Beach. “We add terracotta half pipes to stop the burrows collapsing if the keepers walk over the top, but otherwise the penguins dig and construct their own nests.

“Also, the water is natural seawater pumped in from the Bay. Along with this comes the plankton that grows and develops into mature seaweeds, copepods, shellfish, anemones and crabs. The enclosure is large and the location is ideal, right on the coast with plenty of clean sea air.”

It’s clear – Living Coasts is a great place for penguins!

Quotes All the animals are lovely with plenty of space to move about and play. Quotes