Interns Present for Rare Birth of Gentoo Penguin at Irish Aquarium

News Story: September 5, 2014
Nicole Barney with the baby penguin

The first Gentoo penguin ever hatched in Ireland was born recently at the Oceanworld Aquarium in Dingle after three years of unsuccessful breeding efforts. Located in Dingle town in County Kerry on the west coast of Ireland, Dingle is a renowned ocean studies facility committed to the conservation of marine and freshwater systems through education and research. Oceanworld also hosts courses offered by the Department of Biology at Sacred Heart through the SHU in Dingle study abroad program. Over the past two years, the Department of Biology and the Oceanworld Aquarium have established a cooperative research and internship program for SHU undergraduate biology majors. Nicole Barney ’15 and Keara Bohannon ’17, were the first two interns to participate in this program. They were both fortunate to be at Dingle for the triumphant birth as part of this two-month internship that immersed them in ongoing collaborative research projects focusing on coastal ecology as well as the science behind operating Oceanworld Aquarium.

Gentoo penguins are very distinctive, with a bright orange beak, white stripe over the head and pink feet. The aquarium had 12 penguins prior to the new chick. They are the third-largest penguin species in the world, reaching a height of between 70 and 90 centimeters. Gentoos are the fastest-swimming bird in the world. They reach speeds of up to 40 kilometers per hour. They can also dive to deeper than 100 meters, holding their breath for up to seven minutes. They are very athletic on land, able to outrun humans, and they can climb sheer rock faces using the strong claws on their feet.

Found on the Antarctic Peninsula and the islands that surround it, they thrive in colder temperatures. At Oceanworld, the penguins live in a special enclosure with temperatures between six to 11 degrees Celsius that vary as the seasons change. The penguins also benefit from a snow machine that produces half a ton of snow and ice each day for them to play on.

Barney says the experience was intensely hands-on and invaluable for her personally, especially since she is planning to attend veterinarian school after she graduates.

“For the first two weeks we attended class and activities with the study-abroad group,” Barney recalls. “After the group left, Keara and I worked at the aquarium five days a week conducting independent research projects. We also worked alongside the head aquarist, Sarah Hegarty, caring for all of the different species within the Aquarium. We performed water quality tests, conducted daily feedings, recorded data on growth and reproduction and documented behaviors. I became one of the penguin keepers, which was very exciting, especially as a pre-vet student. When the chick was born I participated in daily weighing and handling—it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

“Both Nicole and I performed many of the jobs involving daily tank maintenance, including display feeds and cleanings,” adds Bohannon. “For the shark tank feeds, I was typically assigned to Molly, the Loggerhead turtle, who required a bit of distraction to keep her away from the sharks’ food. I also was involved with the Aquarium’s annual European lobster hatchery research, a conservation project to help protect the species from overfishing. We would watch as thousands of lobsters began to hatch and then raise them until they were mature enough to be released in various locations around the Kerry coast.”

Both students talked about the value of their internship in terms of real-world, hands-on experience as well as the intercultural benefits.

“This type of internship program, for biology students in particular, is an invaluable experience,” says Bohannon. “For many students who are studying science, it is nearly impossible to travel abroad due to rigid course schedules. However, this summer internship with the Oceanworld Aquarium not only allowed me to do research in my field, but also to gain real work experience while completely immersing myself in a foreign country. Study abroad programs are a great way to understand different cultures, get outside your comfort zone and open yourself to new opportunities, all without compromising academic success.”

According to Louise Overy, Dingle’s senior penguin keeper and education officer, one of the central activities of Oceanworld Aquarium is breeding species that are falling in numbers. “These programs are essential in the restoration of marine life that has been depleted not only in Ireland but throughout the world due to overfishing, climate change and human disturbance of natural habitats,” observes Overy. “Working with student interns is practical and important, and their enthusiasm is contagious . . . they fit right in, and the opportunity to get them involved with our Gentoos—a threatened species—is equally valuable for support and raising awareness.

“We greatly appreciate the connection we have with Sacred Heart University, and we hope in the future to develop more courses of interest to students and to the aquarium,” Overy adds. “We’re delighted to have a hand in training the next generation of scientists, environmentalists, researchers and teachers.”

The Gentoo chick is doing well, Overy says. Gender can’t be determined until 10 to 12 weeks, but Oceanworld Aquarium will keep penguin enthusiasts updated via its Facebook page and intends to solicit names for the new arrival after its gender has been announced.

Barney credits both SHU’s Biology Department and Dingle for opening doors for students. “This opportunity is immensely valuable because it gives students the ability to experience life in a different country and to learn so much more than what is simply taught in the classroom,” she says. “I learned a great deal about the health and wellness of the fish and what it takes to maintain a suitable environment for them. Most importantly, I learned so much about the Gentoo penguins. Having a hands-on experience of this nature is hard to come by and is essential for grad school. It was an amazing experience that I will cherish forever. Dingle now has a very special place in my heart, along with those 12 penguins and one exponentially growing penguin chick!