Penguin exhibit site squeezed into place

Workers took great care Wednesday to lower the Penguin Planet exhibit onto Riverside Terrace at the South Carolina Aquarium. From the terrace, the structure was wheeled on dollies into the aquarium.

Looking like little more than a giant plastic foam cooler, a new penguin exhibit required a true feat of logistics to land in its new home at the South Carolina Aquarium on Wednesday morning.

The 8,000-pound structure arrived by tractor-trailer from North Carolina at the State Ports Authority's Union Pier Terminal on Monday. From there, it was transported on a barge over to the aquarium, where a crane lifted it onto the terrace.

A crew from All Carolina Crane Rental and Equipment guided the exhibit by dollies from there into the aquarium.

Before bringing in the new ecosystem, the aquarium had to dismantle a wall so the 12-foot-long and 10-foot-high structure could squeeze in. Also, a revamped version of the aquarium's touch tank was moved upstairs to accommodate the flightless birds.

If all goes as hoped, the effort and expense will pay off. Penguins, a proven visitor draw, could give a needed boost to the attraction's slumping numbers — attendance dropped 8 percent between 2007 and 2008.

Kevin Kampwerth, director of brand communications, stood outside as a crew prepared to lift the man-made habitat. "On the floor yesterday people were already asking about penguins," he said. "We think they will be a great opportunity to get some people back in here."

The aquatic birds won't arrive at their new home until late February. And until the exhibit's March 21 opening, Penguin Planet will remain behind a dark curtain.

The aquarium will have as many as six birds on loan from a SeaWorld facility until the exhibit ends in March 2010. The particular species, the Magellanic penguin, stands a little taller than two feet and hails primarily from Argentina, Chile and the Falkland Islands.

"They can't fly a lick, but they are amazing swimmers," said Kevin Mills, the aquarium's president and chief executive officer. "Even when they're standing still, it's hard to suppress a smile."

As the new exhibit made its way inside the aquarium Wednesday, Mills said, "People come up to our door and ask, Do we have penguins? We'll be happy to tell them 'yes' pretty soon."

Though the penguins mark the aquarium's only diversion from a cast of all in-state species, the birds will be used to explain climate change at a local level.

"They're wonderful ambassadors for all the world's wildlife, because the issues that penguins face in the wild — whether it's climate change, habitat loss or human encroachment — are issues that all animals face today," Mills said.

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The 550-square-foot exhibit includes an entire life-support system to clean the air and water, according to Jason Crichton, director of husbandry and facilities at the aquarium.

The cost of the exhibit to the aquarium has not been finalized.

Because penguins eat and excrete quickly, to keep their weight down and to stay warm, "the birds tend to be a little smelly," Crichton said. So those filtration systems not only keep the animals clean but also keep visitors comfortable.

Magellanic penguins require a water temperature between 60 degrees and 70 degrees, according to Chip Harshaw of Animal Interaction Design Group, which designed the exhibit.

"They live in Argentina and Chile," he said. "They're temperate birds and live in a place where it could be 100 degrees or 40 degrees."

He said the exhibit, built in the late 1990s and previously used at the Virginia Aquarium, includes two nesting boxes. When the Charleston penguin attraction ends next year, the structure will be returned to Animal Interaction Design Group.

"Hopefully, it will go on to somebody else," Harshaw said.