The Antarctic Experience is run by the Australian Antarctic Science team – and it is right next to the airport, so we were able to see how long it would take us to get the airport on the day we were due to fly out AT 6AM and we needed to be at the international airport three hours early. Driving through Christchurch, you can see where it gets its name, with so many pretty churches. All the blossom trees were flowering and the daffodils blooming, the city was wearing her best clothes for us.
First experience was the 4D theatre. You got to feel icy waves slapping your face!
Then we went and investigated the storm room, mimicking the arctic temperature and full of ice. We did not go in; I thought that I would die from asthma and my cold combined with frigid conditions. One bloke went in wearing shorts – they supplied coats and boots but not leggings. I thought that bloke would end up as a block … an iceblock. They also had the huskies in there playing for a bit – one adult female and two not-quite-adult male pups. Later on, we ran into the handler and the pups outside and I got to cuddle all three. The handler showed me how they were shedding, and gave me a handful of one of the pup’s fur. He took it off me, bit by bit, with a cheeky grin, until we were in a cloud of his fur. Such lovely animals!
We watched the penguin feeding and then we went for the penguin experience. Which meant we were first allowed into the enclosure, and then taken downstairs (backstage) to the penguin research centre. So, we sat in the compound and watched the penguins go through their post-prandial grooming and general gossip session.
In the research centre, we were introduced to the star of the day, a little female penguin called Suki. The animals look bluish, but under that top layer of feathers they have dense white down. Most of their penguins are too old or disabled to breed and their eggs are infertile. However, because of the limited space in the centre, they removed all eggs and replace them fakes. A penguin bred in captivity can’t be returned to the wild by New Zealand law; it’s too cruel as they will most likely starve to death. They also need the spare spaces in the centre for any ill or injured penguins that require vet care.
They had many stories about how they had received their birds. My favourite story is about the little female found in a cow paddock quite a distance from the sea. They discovered she didn’t know how to swim! Nor did she groom herself enough to remain buoyant. another female penguin took her under her wing (yes, a pun!) and taught the poor sweetie how to be a penguin. The little one still needs swimming therapy, provided by the keepers and scientists.
The disabled birds have had toes bitten off by sharks, legs lost to fishing wire, dog attack, wing paralysis from unknown causes, being underweight, blindness, and just suffering from extended old age. Their oldest inmate – now passed – was a lassie called Toto, who lived to be 25 years old, which is twice the age of a wild penguin would achieve ordinarily. Penguins lose fertility at eight to ten years of age, so this makes sense ecologically – Mother nature isn’t always kind.
My favourite part of the display is the Nice/Naughty board, that keeps track of the behaviour of the flock. This isn’t as silly as it sounds, as penguins are social creatures and the scientists want to keep track of the social dynamics. Science doesn’t have to be stuffy all the time.
This was our last planned outing of the trip. The next day, we were getting ready to fly out to Sydney, and then back to Brisbane. I found it hard to believe the trip was nearly over…