For the penguins at Hong Kong’s Ocean Park, life goes on as normal during Covid-19

AFP and AP
  • Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the park has been closed to visitors, but the birds continue to play and be cared for.
  • Employees have been working in shifts so if one team is quarantined, there are still people to care for the animals.
AFP and AP |

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Save for an absence of gawping crowds, life for the penguins of Hong Kong's Ocean Park has been much the same during the coronavirus pandemic -- but their carers have worked long shifts to keep the monochrome troupe healthy. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP)

Apart from a lack of enthusiastic crowds, life for the penguins of Ocean Park has been much the same during the coronavirus pandemic. Their carers have been working extra-long shifts to make sure nothing changes.

Piles of fresh snow have been laid out as some 100 penguins excitedly gather for their midmorning feeding session. Usually, this daily ritual at the South Pole Spectacular would be a major draw. But the park is still shut because of the coronavirus outbreak.

“If the guests are here, certainly they [the penguins] would be more interactive with the guests through the window, but without guests, we can do ... more enrichment sessions with the penguins,” explained Frank Chau, the park’s senior marine mammal supervisor.

“They can still have fun.”

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Since the pandemic began, Chau and his colleagues have split into two teams working three-day shifts to look after the penguins. Both teams have been strictly separated from each other – this ensures that if one team was quarantined because of a positive test result, the other group could continue to care for the birds.

“The manpower for each team is lower ... Now we have only three to four people every day to take care of all the penguins and make sure every penguin is still living happily and healthily, both mentally and physically,” Chau said.

On a typical day, Chau starts with cleaning and disinfection before firing up the snow machines that help recreate the Antarctic conditions in our warm and humid city.

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He then prepares food and conducts health checks, like weighing the birds and trimming their claws.

To keep the penguins entertained, the team builds toys, including floating ice boards and a perforated box filled with fish and krill to encourage underwater foraging.

Last month, a zoo in Singapore used the lockdown to give their troupe of African penguins the run of the park in a video that went viral. But Chau said Ocean Park’s penguins cannot leave their frigid enclosure.

“The species here are mainly from the sub-Antarctica region, and they need a cooler environment ... especially during the summertime in Hong Kong, [when] we will have a very high temperature,” he said.

This May 1, 2020, photo provided by Sumida Aquarium shows a child, seen on FaceTime, trying to look at garden eels at the aquarium's fish tank during a demonstration prior to the event titled

Chau and his team aren’t the only ones going above and beyond for their animal charges. A Japanese aquarium is organising FaceTime sessions for garden eels so the creatures won’t overdo their own social distancing and forget the humans who used to gather outside their tank.

About 300 eels used to pop up from their individual burrows in the sand at Tokyo’s Sumida Aquarium and let their bodies sway in the water as humans watched. But the eels have largely withdrawn into their shelters because of limited human interaction since the aquarium has been in lockdown.

The aquarium is asking for volunteers to show their faces and wave to the eels on five iPads set up inside the tank to remind them that people care.

It seemed to work. After 3 ½ hours of FaceTime calls on Sunday, the eels gradually hid less and began to show their faces again, the aquarium said.