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Little blue penguins make their debut at Birch Aquarium

Painted on the sidewalks from the parking lot to the entrance of Birch Aquarium are tiny blue footprints.

They lead to a new exhibit, the Little Blue Penguins, set to open Wednesday. The little blue penguins get their name from their feathers, or plumage as bird experts refer to them.

"Their plumage has a really unique sort of navy color that really shines in the sun," said Kayla Strate, Birch's lead penguin aquarist. "It has different hues of almost aqua or cornflower blue, and that's pretty unique to the species."

Indeed — there are 18 difference penguin species, but these penguins are the only ones that are blue. The exhibit is the first sea bird exhibit at the aquarium, but Birch, which is affiliated with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has been researching penguins for decades. When SeaWorld San Diego opened its penguin encounter, the scientists at Scripps were consulted.

Birch is the only place on the West Coast where they are on exhibit. Native to Australia and New Zealand, they are temperate weather penguins. And San Diego climate is just perfect for these little guys, Strate said.

Aarya Ryer, 9, got a sneak peek at the penguins when she visited the aquarium on Monday with her parents and brother. She thinks they are cute but worries about their size.

"I'm wondering how they're going to swim because they're so small and their wings are small," she said. Upon seeing the penguins swimming in the exhibit, she said she was "amazed that they can swim."

They are the smallest penguins in the world, about 12 inches tall and weigh between 2 to 3 pounds — or as Birch puts it, the size of a California burrito.

There are 15 birds in the exhibit right now, Birch hopes to expand the colony.

"We'd love to have over 20 (birds). This exhibit is actually designed to hold almost 40 birds," Strate said. "Because they're colonial, they love to be in large groups in close proximity to one another. When you're small, safety in numbers is the name of the game."

The aquarium is open for extended hours during the summer, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily through August.


Editor's Note: The Birch Aquarium is a supporter of KPBS.