The Impossible Dream – The Story behind SeaWorld San Diego’s Penguin Encounter

Written by Mike Madsen. Posted in Features, Orlando Parkhopper, Other Destinations, Podcasts, SeaWorld San Diego, Southern California Parks, The Unofficial SeaWorld Podcast

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Published on April 06, 2014 at 9:00 am with 3 Comments

As the 50th Celebration for SeaWorld San Diego kicks off, the team at the Unofficial SeaWorld Podcast have been interviewing people who have been involved in the parks during the past 50 years at SeaWorld and related research organizations around the world.

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Recently, we had the pleasure to chat with Frank Todd, who is a recognized authority on waterfowl and penguins. Frank has work more than 30 seasons in the Antarctic.  He was the Corporate Vice President of Aviculture and Research at SeaWorld for 16 years and and is the recipient of numerous awards including the prestigious Gold Conservation Medal from the San Diego Zoological Society and the US National Science Foundation Polar Medal Award.

We asked Frank about how he brought Penguins to the SeaWorld parks.

MiceChat: Frank, you are an expert and have spent a lot of time in the Antarctic. You are famously responsible for the creation of the penguin encounter experiences at the SeaWorld parks. Frank, correct me if I’m wrong, but you achieved the first breeding of Emperor Penguins in captivity, correct?

Frank Todd: Yes, that is correct.

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MiceChat: Ok, well just to fill out people’s understanding of who you are, Frank is, in addition to being a senior research fellow at Hubbs/Seaworld research center, the executive director of Ecocepts International.

Frank Todd: Yes, Ecocepts International; it’s a zoological consulting firm.

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MiceChat: Frank, you were the corporate Vice President of Aviculture, but how did you begin your involvement with SeaWorld. We always ask people what their first SeaWorld memory is but you go so far back with SeaWorld, we’re curious how you began your tenure at SeaWorld?

Frank Todd: As you say, it goes back quite a ways. I was curator of birds at the Los Angeles Zoo, and got a call from SeaWorld, they were interested in starting something new, and after chatting with them and hearing their plans, it didn’t take much to talk me into going down to San Diego. So, in 1972 I moved from L.A. to SeaWorld, which had no birds at that time, and literally started the program from scratch. It was a decision I’ve never regretted.

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MiceChat: Frank, can you describe to us some of the process that led up to creation of the Penguin Encounter; our listeners are going to be intensely interested in exactly how that all came about.

Frank Todd: No problem, it’s kind of a long and convoluted story, so I’ll try to abbreviate it.

There was never any intention originally in getting involved with penguins, but out of the blue, after I’d been there for only a short period of time, I got a call from the National Science Foundation and they were interested in setting up a colony of high Antarctic Penguins in North America, this would be Adélie Penguins and Emperors. The purpose of that would be a long term research project. They had tried this before and had not been successful but were willing to try it one more time. I got the nod to go ahead and try it.

MiceChat: So when you went out to do this, it had not been done before successfully?

Frank Todd: Oh no, this was pretty much all pioneering stuff. I never intended to do the project, I agreed to go to the Antarctic for them and take a look at the situation, and maybe work up some recommendations for them relative to what they needed to do, which I did. Then they called back some time later and said Frank, we agree with all this stuff, and guess what? We want you do to it!
So that’s kind of how SeaWorld got involved in the Penguin business, it was a single call from Washington D.C. that changed, at least in my opinion, the direction of SeaWorld in many ways.

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MiceChat: It seems to me that SeaWorld having these kinds of encounters has been critical in showing people what is out there; what we need to conserve and protect. Would you agree with that?

Frank Todd: Absolutely. Our first obligation, once we brought the birds up was to service all the research projects the National Science Foundation had in mind. We did that over a number of years, and as a matter of fact, that kind of research is still going on today. I think that its one of the longest running continuous research projects in any zoo in the world ever done, and it’s been really successful. So that was phase one, phase two was to try to establish self sustaining populations of penguins. We were obviously going to be working on Adélie Penguins, which nobody knew anything about, and Emperors who they knew even less about. We were in fact successful as you mentioned earlier, and once we started breeding Emperor Penguins, the whole world’s attention was on San Diego. We were seeing things going on in the Antarctic that nobody had seen before, including us, so those were very exciting times.

MiceChat: That really is very exciting. Can you describe to us what it was like to go down to Antarctic for the first time? What was your first expedition like? What was it like finding out how you were going to actually do this?

Frank Todd: Again you have another complicated question, but I’ll try to keep it brief. First, you’re talking to a guy who was born and raised in Panama, and my background when I started this project was tropical biology, I was breeding things in Los Angeles like Harpy Eagles and Toucans, never had any real experience with cold weather except for Montana, where I did my graduate work. Antarctica in my mind was probably the most exotic place on the planet. At least, that was my mental picture. I went down, not with a lot of expectations on what to expect, but I did get an education in a hurry. Let me just say that the Antarctic is the greatest mistress in the world. She’s cold, she’s got icy fingers; once she gets those fingers into you, you can’t escape. Nobody goes to the Antarctic only once, believe me.

MiceChat: When you first brought the penguins back, was it live penguins, was it eggs? Please explain exactly what the process was for introducing the first penguins.

Frank Todd: Well, this of course was an extremely complicated venture as well. These were live penguins; back in those days there was no information on temperature, incubation or how to hatch or hand raise chicks, so we didn’t have any choice, really. We brought back several hundred over a few years. We were working with the air force; they were supplying all the transportation to McMurdo station, which is where we were working in those days. This was the big C141 aircraft, and we kept them frozen all the way back to the United States. In fact, I have to tell you I was colder on those penguin flights then I ever was in the Antarctic. Because of course you’re there 20 something hours and not moving around. It was during that time that we were moving all those penguins that I was formulating in my mind that there has to be a better way, and eggs of course would be the better way.

We didn’t have at that time the information we needed. Later we got that in San Diego. So we started with live penguins and we started breeding them within a year or so, and the reason we ended up with the Penguin Palace, we were raising them so successfully and we had all these penguins and were still doing research; in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “What am I going to do now?” and I always wanted to build the ultimate palace for penguins (the original name was The Penguin Palace).

Over time the penguin encounter evolved, it opened, as you know, in May of 1983 in San Diego. It enjoyed instant success, and broke previous attendance records twice the first week it was open and penguin mania was wild in North America, that’s for sure!

MiceChat: So it was very popular. Talk about pioneering, you literally pioneered this, because previous to this there was no information available, so you compiled all the information and everyone since then has built upon your original research.

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Frank Todd: Yes, that is correct. Unfortunately, most of the zoos up to that time were not taking the best care of penguins. Not because of disinterest, but because they just didn’t have the information and many penguins were being killed with kindness. Due to our success, all our research has been passed on to other zoos and virtually every other zoo in the world uses SeaWorld protocol now. Even on the exhibit design, it was so innovative when it was built, there were so many new things in it, many people were calling it “The Impossible Dream”. There were people, even at SeaWorld, who were fearful it wasn’t going to work. But it did work, and just about every place in the world now utilizes the techniques we developed at the Penguin Encounter.

MiceChat: What was so impossible at the time? You describe it as being the impossible dream; what do you feel that people meant by that.

Frank Todd: I guess it comes down to that all the mammal people, in fact everyone was saying, “SeaWorld isn’t going to spend all that money on birds!.” But they did. It was seven and a half million dollars; it was the largest project that SeaWorld had ever done, back in those days. We did so many innovative things; for instance, it was the largest freezer ever built, we eliminated the concept of joining glass with what was called cement mulligans, so you just had windows to look through. I wanted to create a window to the Antarctic, so we just sealed the glass together, glass to glass. The engineers were in a panic and everyone was on pins and needles to see if this would work because were holding frozen air, not just a regular environment.

So we did that and it worked! We had a 100 foot window to the Antarctic, which is exactly what I wanted to do. Another thing I wanted to do, because I knew how popular it would be, I wanted to do a moving sidewalk. That had never been done before, of course it’s fairly common practice everywhere now. We controlled people coming and going by temperature, if it started to get too crowded we’d bring the temperature down, it was pretty subtle. You were able to view the penguins swimming under water but we weren’t able to do what was done later in Orlando, that huge twenty foot window at the end of Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, that was what I originally envisioned, however we weren’t able to do that due to budget constraints. We’ve learned a lot in the ensuing years, and of course technology has changed. However, just about everything that is done now, all goes back to those early days with our project that started in 1972, from a breeding standpoint,and a science standpoint. It’s pretty amazing.

MiceChat: It really is Frank. Though we’ve done a lot of research, a lot of this information is new to us. Things we could only get from you.

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Frank Todd: Let me give you one aspect of how successful it has been with the penguins. Several years ago, SeaWorld called me up and they said, “Frank, you have to come out. We have an Emperor Penguin sick.” So I went out there and the first thing I did was check the records. I collected the particular pair that hatched this chick, back in 1978. I would say that particular pair was about 45 years old, still alive. This is an animal considered when we started as the most delicate animal you could keep in captivity, still alive today and still breeding.

MiceChat: That really is amazing. We’re going to call you the Godfather of Penguins.

Frank Todd: They’ve done that for years, so go ahead!

MiceChat: Frank, thank you so much for the insight into the early days of penguin encounters. There is so much more we could ask you, but we only have one more question for you today. What can our listeners do to help conserve our world’s oceans at home?

Frank Todd: Well I always say, “Think globally, act locally.” That’s the best thing you can do. There are always projects that need help, rescue and conservation organizations like the Audubon Society, Sierra Club and lots of marine organizations as well that are involved in different projects, whether it be beaches, oceans, rivers cultural areas or whatever. So I’d say, find out what is going on locally and get involved. If you’re in an area that has zoos, then get involved with your zoo associations. There are lots of different rehabilitation facilities that take care of injured animals and always need volunteers; just be aware of what is going on around you and get involved.

MiceChat: Thanks for giving us your time Frank. We’d like to talk to you again in the future and learn more about your experiences.

Frank Todd: My pleasure. We just scratched the surface on this one, so there is plenty more to tell.

To listen to the entire interview, we ask you to listen to the latest episode of the Unofficial SeaWorld Podcast, where you also learn about new attractions coming to Aquatica in Orlando and San Antonio, with more news and rumors!

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  • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

    Thank you Mike and Frank.

    I can’t imagine living, or even visiting, the Antarctic. Hard to believe that birds can even live down there, much less such cute little fellows.

    • CreepyMonkey

      Thanks Dusty! It was a real pleasure to speak with Frank, and he had so many interesting stories! We hope to get more in the future.

      Mike

  • BradyNBradleysMom

    Boy, am I glad I clicked on this article by mistake. I saw the “podcast” thing and was going to skip it, because I think there are just too many of these podcasts on MiceChat now. It feels like the podcasts have taken over at the expense of the actual writing. And some of the podcasts are not as professional as others, with giggling and carrying-on. So I skip them.

    THIS article, however, was fabulous. I see there is the podcast thing if people want to listen (I chose not to) but there was actually something to read and it was really great and informative stuff. I wish that all podcasts showcased here would use this format: type out part of the interview, the highlights, as an article and then have the podcast to listen to.

    Instead of just throwing up a podcast and saying “here, listen to this” and half the time it’s just giggling and overtalk.