A highlight of any visit to the Detroit Zoo is checking out the new penguinarium. This 33,000-square-foot facility named the Polk Penguin Conservation Center has an exterior meant to replicate the appearance of an Antarctic iceberg and is home to more than 80 penguins. Its state-of-the-art interior provides close-up views of these penguins both walking about on land and swimming around in the water.
A Penguin Expedition at the Detroit Zoo
The exhibit is themed around the early 20th century expeditions of legendary polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton to Antarctica.
As you enter the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, a large glass wall showcases a habitat meant to replicate the coastline of Chile’s Cape Horn which is the southern tip of South America where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet. This body of water off the coast of Cape Horn is known as the Drake Passage and provides the shortest sea route to reaching Antarctica.
In addition to providing a great observation point to view the four species of penguins that live in the habitat (Gentoo, King, Macaroni & Rockhopper) often times the birds will approach the giant window and interact with people.
Relive Shackleton’s Voyage to Antarctica
After spending some time viewing the penguins, take a walk through a 4-D 360-degree recreation of one of Shackleton’s voyages across the Drake Passage to Antarctica. Images projected on the walls of a ramp leading to the lower levels of the penguin habitat provide the sensation that you are sailing to Antarctica and switch between visuals of a sunny morning, stormy afternoon and moonlit night.
Special effects including blasts of wind, spraying water and falling snow enhance the experience. This really is an impressive display and a nice way to incorporate an entertaining aspect that compliments the educational elements of the penguinarium.
Walking down the ramp you next reach the lower levels of the ship where visitors can view through port holes creatures that live undersea in the waters that surround Antarctica. Screens inside the port holes show videos of animals and fish as if they were swimming around the boat. Catch a glimpse of a jellyfish, leopard seals, octopus, orcas and humpback whales.
Walk Through the Penguinarium
Now that you have reached the lower level of the center walk through an underwater gallery and two acrylic tunnels to view penguins swim above and around you within their habitat’s 326,000-gallon, 25-foot deep aquatic area.
Wow! Those birds can really fly underwater. Watch them swim by above, underneath and to your side as you walk through the tunnel.
In the main underwater viewing area electronic displays of facts about penguins appear in the water using advanced heads up display technology originally designed to be used on car windshields. Another of the high-tech touches that make this place special.
Huge Display Areas
Next it is back up to the building’s main level where the habitat is meant to resemble Antarctica’s icy landscape. Watch as penguins frolic in real snow that drifts down upon them from the ceiling. A large glass wall allows a great view of the birds on land and as well as while they float on the surface of the habitat’s water area.
Exit Through the Gift Shop, Please
Before you leave get yourself a souvenir of your visit to the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. The kiosk by the exit will take a photo of you and place the pic within a digital postcard containing conservation tips that it will send for free to email addresses you select. Or you can also purchase a wide variety of penguin themed items in the building’s gift store.
The Detroit Zoo is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Winter hours are 10am to 4pm and the zoo is open during the summer from 9am to 5pm. In July and August hours are extended on Wednesdays to 8 pm. Entry to the Polk Penguin Conservation Center in included with general admission to the Detroit Zoo.