I swam with penguins Sunday.
And it’s awesome.
Mark it down as one of the ironies of life that after decades of living near the California coast, the opportunity to fulfill that bucket-list dream came in a place about as far from an ocean as you can get – Tanganyika Wildlife Park, Goddard, Kansas.
While many zoos and aquatics parks have penguins, Tanganyika Park appears to be one of the few, if not the only, places in America that will actually let you share the pool with them.
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I’ve always been fascinated by penguins, God’s clumsiest birds on land but incredibly graceful gliders in the water. And I admire their tenacity, surviving as they do on some of the planet’s coldest and most inhospitable real estate.
When the Penguin Encounter opened at Sea World in 1983, I took a special trip to San Diego just to see it. About 15 years later, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon just sitting and watching those penguins while my infant twin sons slept in their stroller in the quiet darkness of the exhibit.
Until this Father’s Day, it seemed unlikely – but infinitely more plausible – that I’d swim with the Pittsburgh Penguins than the actual birds.
My wife, Kathy, discovered penguin swimming at Tanganyika. And she and sons Kyle and Braden (who just graduated from college) pooled their money to buy me a turn –$175 plus $20 to rent a wetsuit.
On Sunday, I learned a few things I didn’t know about my favorite animal.
From a distance, they look like the guests at a snooty cocktail party. Up close, they’re playful, quirky individuals with a wide range of personalities.
Beth is the self-appointed social director and ambassador from penguindom to humanity. She walked me to the pool, stayed within arm’s reach for just about all of my swim experience, seemed to love her back stroked, and tried to go home with me when I left.
Nadine seems a bit jealous of Beth. She’d circle and occasionally nip at my wetsuit as if to say, “Hey, I’m here too.”
Weezer was like a big kid, who appears to enjoy a friendly game of tag.
And Burt was the shy, reticent type who’ll warm up to you once he realizes you’re not there to try to eat him.
Tanganyika’s penguins are native to the shores of South Africa, adapted to warmer weather and water than their Antarctic cousins (though I’d still strongly recommend the wetsuit).
And the penguins who swim with people are all hand-reared at the park, explained my guide, Thomas Joyce.
Although they are prodigious swimmers, wild penguins stay on land as much as possible except to hunt or drink, because the water is where they are most at risk from their natural predators. Some penguins just don’t get over that instinct that water equals danger, he explained.
Toward the end of my swim, I suggested that the park name its next penguin either “Sidney” or “Crosby” in honor of the hockey star who just led the Pittsburgh Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups.
Joyce said he didn’t think either name belonged to another animal at the park. So who knows? It just might happen.
Ironically, a couple hours after my penguin swim (and the long, hot shower you’ll definitely want afterwards), a friend from Arizona invited her Facebook friends to post an experience they have had that they didn’t think any of her other friends had had.
I wrote: “I swam with penguins today.”
I win the Internet.