Edinburgh Zoo celebrates 100 years of penguins

Big crowds watch the parade in 1962. Picture: TSPL
Big crowds watch the parade in 1962. Picture: TSPL
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THEY usually don’t need much of an excuse for a grand parade – Edinburgh Zoo’s penguins tend to be only too eager to put on a show.

Dapper in their coats of shiny black and bibs of dazzling white, with their wobbly waddle and their way of just suddenly stopping and staring upwards, it’s impossible to imagine a visit to the zoo that doesn’t involve the penguins.

Callum and Connor Stafford meet Penny Guin, the zoo's new penguin mascot. Picture: Jane Barlow

Callum and Connor Stafford meet Penny Guin, the zoo's new penguin mascot. Picture: Jane Barlow

Soon there will be 100 reasons to watch them strut their stuff, as the zoo marks the 100th year since the arrival of its first penguins – the first ever to be seen in Europe.

Six were delivered to the newly opened zoo on January 25, 1913, after a mammoth 7000-mile journey on board Leith whaling company Salvesen & Co’s steamer Coronda.

Caught by the steamer’s crew in the waters off South Georgia, the four king penguins, one gentoo and one macaroni, were presented to the zoo by the Salvesen family, the first of many live donations they would make.

Soon the quirky little penguins had stolen the show from the monkeys with their antics, and eventually would pave the way for the development of the zoo’s husbandry and breeding programmes.

And, of course, it would be a diving penguin, slightly pot-bellied, nose in the air, that would become the zoo’s emblem for years to come.

Colin Oulton, team leader for birds at Edinburgh Zoo, said: “To celebrate 100 years of caring for this inquisitive and curious species is a very special occasion.

“Historically, penguins have always been an important species for Edinburgh Zoo and Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.

“The world may have changed a lot over the past century, but penguins have always remained a firm favourite with our visitors.”

Their arrival created a “panda style” stir at the time, with newspaper reports describing their plumage in fine detail. Within five years, zoo staff watched eagerly as the first king penguin chick to be 
successfully bred in the Northern Hemisphere chiselled its way out of its shell, the first of many landmark successes. Later, in 1935, came the first macaroni chick, followed two years later by the first gentoo chick – making Edinburgh the first zoo in the world to breed the species.

By the 1950s, the penguins were the “must see” attraction at the zoo. “Our daily penguin parade, started in 1951, is now world famous and one of the only opportunities people have to get up close to penguins outside of the Southern Hemisphere,” said Mr Oulton.

And few zoos, never mind species, can boast a king among kings in their midst. “Sir Nils Olav, the king penguin, is world-renowned as the highest-ranking penguin in the world,” he added. “The mascot for the Norwegian Guard, in 2008 he received a knighthood which was approved by the King of Norway and the Norwegian Guard visits him regularly.”

The zoo kicks off the centenary with Penguin Awareness Week from Monday. As part of the celebrations, an extra penguin talk will be occurring each day at 11am, along with the regular talk and feed after the penguin parade at 2.15pm.

Exclusive footage from when BBC’s Spy in the Huddle cameras visited Edinburgh Zoo’s penguins will also be screened in the Penguins Rock Habitat Hut.

sdick@edinburghnews.com