Keeper Connection: Why Don’t the Penguins Swim… Or Do They?

If you’ve spent any time at the penguin exhibit over the last 20 years or so, you’ve probably asked why our penguins never swim. It is, after all, the number one question asked when it comes to the penguins. But to answer that question would require one to get inside the tiny brain of a penguin. Something we’ve never quite been able to accomplish.
But things have changed in 2022! Guests that have gotten to the Zoo bright and early have been greeted by something long dreamed of by staff and guests alike: A pool full of swimming penguins.
So what has changed? While we have tried a number of tactics over the years, the final solution may ultimately be a combination of factors coming together. It’s also important to note that in conservation care, just like in their natural range, individual penguins take their cues from the rest of the colony. If there is a sense of danger, individuals are less likely to act on their own. In nature, this danger might be a nearby shark or a cape fur seal. In our habitat, the perceived danger may be our guests themselves.

The turnaround may have begun back in 2020, when the Zoo was closed for several months, due to covid. As guests returned, we roped off the area around the penguin glass for guest protection, as it’s a high-touch area. This “buffer zone” seems to have offered a bit of comfort, but again, only the penguins know for sure. 

Another factor may be that we’ve started handling our younger birds more, making them more comfortable around their keepers and more trusting of humans, in general. This seems to be reinforced by the fact that they are more likely to swim with a keeper “lifeguard” on duty. 

However, the most important move likely came when we brought in 8 new penguins from several other facilities. These penguins were “known swimmers” and did not have the same fears that our colony had developed over the years. Over time, their eagerness to swim has become contagious, first with our younger birds and then to the parents. To date, nearly half of our 34 penguins have been observed swimming with sometimes a dozen at a time.

Now I know that there will be some long-time members who read this with skepticism so we’ve included a little video evidence. My suggestion would be to come out and see them yourself! The best time is when they first come out first thing in the morning at roughly 10 A.M.

Better hurry though, the snow is coming and these are warm-climate penguins!

– Zoo Keeper Kevin Blakely


Ways you can help African penguins:

  • Adopt a penguin at SANCCOB – Adopt an African penguin or penguin egg that will be rehabilitated and released or adopt a ‘Home Pen’ bird that lives permanently at SANCCOB. Funds help to provide incubation, food, and veterinary treatment.
  • Donate to SANCCOB – Whether you donate your time or money, you can make a difference in the survival of endangered African penguins and other seabirds in distress. For more information, visit
  • Visit the Zoo to learn more about African penguins and the threats they face in nature through keeper chats, special experiences, and more.
  • Purchase sustainably sourced seafood – Purchase seafood caught or farmed in ways that support a healthy ocean. Ask your local grocer if they sell sustainable seafood and visit to learn more about eco-friendly options.


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