Conservation, Education, Must See, News, Places

Lapping waves, falling snow, plenty of ice the Polk Penguin Conservation Center opens April 18 at the Detroit Zoo

Penguins in Habitat 3 - Jennie Miller

It’s finally here. The Polk Penguin Conservation Center is finished and the Detroit Zoo’s 80 king, macaroni, rockhopper, and gentoo penguins have waddled over from their former home at the Penguinarium to start swimming in their new 326,000-gallon pool.

The doors open to the public Monday, April 18.

It took $30 million to put together the penguin habitat that sits on two acres right at the zoo entrance. As the crowds pour in, they will be able to see the Antarctic birds as they live as close to naturally as they can in captivity with the 33,000-square-foot Center’s soaring ceilings, expansive windows that bathe the space in natural light and giant swimming pool.

The new digs are quite the step up from their former place of residence. Their new pool of cold water is 10 times the size of their previous home. They also have two tunnels to travel and exercise in.  All of it is visible to visitors because of the vast acrylic window, which provides an atypical type of bird’s eye view of Antarctic life.

To ensure the avian resident’s comfort and safety, the habitat is kept at 37 degrees Fahrenheit, and the water at 40 degrees. The idea is promote roughhousing and exercise, like diving and porpoising, as well as nesting and rearing their young.

Rocks for climbing to lapping waves, falling snow and plenty of ice, are all part of the design to keep the penguins in a situation that resembles their South Pole home. Most of the features are new to the new penguinarium.

“The penguins are adapting well to their new home and appear to be discovering their many new opportunities for deep diving, porpoising and even sliding in snow,” said Ron Kagan, executive director and CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS). “We have created a penguin environment centered on conservation that offers an extraordinary and authentic experience for our guests.”

The resemblance to the ice world at the South Pole is the result of the design team’s trip to the Antarctic to observe tens of thousands of penguins and how they live their day-to-day lives. The exterior is even reminiscent of towering tabular iceberg with a crevasse and waterfall, similar to what polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton saw during his legendary Antarctic expedition and epic crossing of the Drake Passage.

As you go through the entry way you’ll go down a series of ramps just like you would if you were aboard Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, and you’ll be surrounded by 4-D effects, including blasts of polar air and sea mist. The zoo has even found a way, through video and light effects, to replicate iceberg calving, where icebergs split and send massive cascades of ice crashing into the sea.

You’ll know the new habitat when you see it because a 25 ft. waterfall cascades down from the roof. This is to simulate cracking and melting icebergs. There’s also a large window that provides a vista into the penguins’ habitat. It all happens at an outdoor plaza, which has a 1,400-square-foot fountain with 32 jets over an outline of Antarctica and surrounding oceans. For the months the penguins would find most comfortable (winter), it will become a skating rink.

Before you leave the building, stop by the Drake Passage Gift Shop where you can find gifts, toys, T-shirts, books, coffee mugs and other penguin-themed items.

The Drake Passage Gift Shop - Jennie Miller

The Polk Penguin Conservation Center was designed by Jones & Jones, architects of the Detroit Zoo’s Arctic Ring of Life and National Amphibian Conservation Center, and by Albert Kahn Associates, architects of the Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex. World-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, director of the Polar Oceans Research Group, was a key consultant on the project.

The penguin center is named for the Polk family, led by longtime Detroit Zoo supporters Bobbi and Stephen. The $10-million gift from the Polk Family Fund represents the largest in the zoo’s 88-year history. If you would like to contribute as well please visit

The Polk Penguin Conservation Center is free with Detroit Zoo admission. However, to ensure an enjoyable experience for all guests, timed-entry passes are required. They are available on a first-come, first-served basis at admissions. While you wait to see the penguins’ new home

For more information on the new penguin center, visit

After months of plans, design, work, and teases, the penguins finally take center stage for all the zoo visitors to see.

About the Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *