Ripley’s to open penguin exhibit

GATLINBURG – A $5 million habitat housing two dozen African black-footed penguins opens in March at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.

Ripley’s officials announced the plan and gave hard-hat tours Thursday of the exhibit being built by Joseph Construction of Knoxville.

With more than 4,000 square feet and a 30,000 interior saltwater tank, Penguin Playhouse is the largest and costliest expansion for the Gatlinburg aquarium that opened in December 2000. But General Manager Ryan F. DeSear said neither size nor cost are what make the indoor/outdoor exhibit unique. That, he says, comes from the area’s interactive design.

Visitors will be able to crawl through the habitat’s large, clear acrylic underwater tunnels as penguins swim above, around and under them. Another see-through tunnel will position humans at the penguins’ beach. Acrylic floors will let visitors see the birds swim between interior and exterior pools. DeSear said an encounter area will let visitors feed and possibly touch one of the birds native to Africa’s southwestern coast.

The penguins will live in an area previously occupied by the aquarium’s Veranda Restaurant and patio. Costs aren’t final but DeSear estimated Penguin Playhouse to come in “at upwards” of $5 million when it opens in mid-March.

Penguins give visitors the opposite feeling of the powerful sharks for which the aquarium is best known.

“Who doesn’t love penguins?” DeSear said. “They’re cute, they waddle.”

The exhibit will open with about 20 penguins. The animals are currently housed at a New Orleans aquarium.

Ripley’s birds will be part of the American Zoological Association’s Species Survival Plan that oversees the animals.

An estimated 150,000 African penguins live in the wild. One of 17 penguin species, the birds do not live in the ice and snow habitat that many associate with the animals.

Amy McRary may be reached at 865-342-6437.

Originally Posted : – Ripley’s to open penguin exhibit