"It doesn't smell!"
Those were the first words uttered by my kids and many others upon entering the Polk Penguin Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo. While there was a certain authenticity in the odors at the old "penguin house" at the Detroit Zoo, if one is going to a zoo, and not roaming the wilds, a few concessions to modern conveniences and comforts (like the lack of pungent penguin and fish odors) is quite appreciated. For many younger children and those with respiratory issues, the odor did in fact limit their ability to truly spend time observing the penguins in action.
When we purchased our tickets to the zoo we were also given timed tickets to the penguin center. This was a brilliant move and ensures that the crowds inside the exhibit never get to be too large so families can be sure to have great access to the observation windows. On days when the zoo is not terribly crowded, there is some much appreciated flexibility with the admission time-we were able to enter 15 minutes prior to our designated time. This was appreciated in that the penguin center is at the entry of the zoo and there would not be much to do otherwise other than avoid the zoo employees trying to take our picture for a fee!
The building itself is stunning, a white angular design, clearly designed to remind one of an iceberg. It would not look out of place as a home for contemporary art or theatre. This is appropriate too, in that the inside one has the opportunity to enjoy nature's grand theatre-that of 80 fascinating penguins, swimming, strutting, eating, and socializing.
Upon entering you are welcomed into a darkened room and the penguin drama unfolds before you on the shelf of a simulated iceberg. Younger children are encouraged to get up close to the window, in front of the adults to get a better view. Don't try to dive right into the educational aspects of the exhibit quite yet, begin by letting the children marvel at the penguins as they dive into the water and swim speedily past as they loop through the exhibit. To hear your child squeal with delight as a particular penguins waddles quickly before plopping into the water is a treat!
After a few minutes, begin to look about you at the information placards or consult with a zoo volunteer or docent who can give you information about the types of penguins that reside here, their food consumption patterns, the temperature in the water and other questions that curious observers might have.
As you leave this area, you descend a ramp in an area with a nautical theme. Images of a ship and the ocean are projected onto the walls surrounding you and you are immersed in an adventure through the icy waters, south to the Antarctic- it is as if you are travelling with Shackleton. I would recommend if your children enjoy this room, to stand to the side against the railing and allow the brief film to unfold around you as it takes you through the phases of the day. This is a full 4D experience, so if your children has sensitivities to noise, darkness and a bit of mist, then of course walk through this area in a more expedient manner. Otherwise, bon voyage!
On a lower gallery, you can imagine that you are in an observation deck of a scientific vessel, peering through small windows along the wall to study the sea life beyond. These computer generated images of sea animals are lovely and worth standing in line for a moment or two to fully appreciate.
Then it is one of the highlights of the exhibit-the penguin tunnel! This is reminiscent of the wonderful polar bear exhibit at the zoo, in which visitors walk through a glass tunnel beneath the water as penguins swim alongside and above you. If you are patient, you will find you can stand along the side for a few minutes and soon you will see the underside of a penguin as it races effortlessly above you. While not quite as dramatic as the polar bears, the ease and speed with which the penguins swim help make this experience very enjoyable.
Next one enters a room with a large glass wall. This allows another great opportunity to observe the penguins in the water and it is a bit more spacious, so you can linger a bit longer. Young children will enjoy crawling through the tunnel to get to the next area, otherwise just keep walking!
Soon you will be climbing the steps or taking the elevator to the last stop in this exhibit. You will have one last chance to look at the penguins from above water level. I would definitely encourage you to linger here a bit if you are able. On two different occasions, we have experienced penguins that will walk right up to the window to get a closer look at you. Children are likely to love knowing that these creatures are just as curious about humans as we are about them.
Also, in this room is another great video projected onto the back wall. If you have the time stay to watch this brief video of an iceberg splitting and crashing into the sea you will likely be as impressed as I was with the formidable forces of nature and the difficult environment in which these penguins flourish.
There is a last chance to ask questions of the zoo staff or here are some questions you can have your children discuss and research throughout the exhibit:
1. How many penguins are in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center?
2. How many types of penguins are in the center?
3. How much do they weigh and how tall are they?
4. How can you tell the types apart?
5. What do they eat? How much?
6. Do they drink the sea water?
7. When did Shackleton go on the trip to the Antarctic? How long did it take to get there?
8. How cold is the water in which the penguins swim?
9. How big can icebergs get? Why do they calve (or split apart)?
I am sure your curious child can think of many more, but discussing these questions and others as you leave the Polk Penguin Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo will likely help them appreciate this high quality exhibit as you meander through the rest of the zoo.