You don’t have to travel all the way to Antarctica or remote islands in the Southern Hemisphere to see penguins, one of the world’s most beloved animals. That’s because San Diego has become “Penguin City U.S.A.” thanks to exhibits and attractions dedicated to these irresistible flightless birds at the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld San Diego, and Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, UC San Diego.
Dapper in their tastefully understated plumage, penguins are immediately recognizable. But with 18 different species they’re also far more diverse than most people realize. And if San Diego seems like a surprising place for penguins, it’s actually an ideal home for some species.
“San Diego is truly a destination for penguin lovers,” says Birch Aquarium at Scripps lead penguin aquarist Kayla Strate. “Many people don't realize that not all penguins live in the ice and snow. Here in San Diego, between SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo, you can see penguins from South America, Africa, and Antarctica.
“Birch Aquarium is so proud to join them and bring to the West Coast the first penguins from Australia and New Zealand. Their climate is surprisingly similar to ours, and each San Diego facility has a unique outdoor penguin exhibit that highlights these temperate species year-round. It's just not possible in other places around the country. And you could not find a more concentrated wealth of penguin expertise between Birch Aquarium at Scripps, SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo.”
Penguins at SeaWorld Sea Diego
SeaWorld is the only place in North America to observe emperor penguins, the largest species at nearly four feet tall and up to 90 pounds. Able to dive to depths greater than 1,000 feet and stay underwater for 22 minutes, these giants inspired SeaWorld’s thrilling new Emperor dive coaster, which reaches speeds in excess of 60 mph and has a vertical drop of 14 stories. A portion of merchandise sales at the ride goes to Penguins International, a SeaWorld conservation partner.
While the emperors are bound to grab your attention, you’ll also fall in love with the winsome faces of chinstrap penguins and can view macaroni penguins, which are notable for their striking yellow crests. Penguins are as fascinating as they are charismatic, and for the ultimate introduction to these animals, SeaWorld’s Penguins Up-Close Encounter takes you behind the scenes with an aviculturist and even includes a meet-and-greet with one of the birds.
Penguins at the San Diego Zoo
San Diego’s world-renowned zoo is home to a colony of endangered African penguins, which are native to the southern shores of South Africa. Designed to resemble South Africa’s Boulders Beach, the Dan and Vi McKinney Penguin Habitat incorporates rockwork and a pebble beach from where the penguins plunge into a 13-foot-deep pool that extends for 170 feet. Maybe penguins can’t fly, at least in the air, but from the habitat’s underwater viewing area, you can watch as they gracefully wing their way through the pool.
For an inside look at the colony, the 90-minute Penguin & Friends tour gives you a private visit with the zoo’s penguins and an introduction to how keepers care for these rare animals. And you can even check out the penguins from home by streaming the zoo’s Penguin Cam.
Penguins at the Birch Aquarium
In La Jolla, at the Birch Aquarium, the world’s smallest penguin species will soon have a new home in the Beyster Family Little Blue Penguins habitat, a 2,900-square-foot exhibit with rocky and sandy shorelines along an 18,000-gallon pool that’s slated to open in summer of 2022. Only a handful of zoos and aquariums in the U.S. keep little blues, who, with their bluish feathers and diminutive size (around three pounds and less than a foot tall) come by their name honestly. The exhibit’s amphitheater and a discovery cave for children offer unique opportunities to view these penguins as they socialize and build nests.