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For SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium’s sub-Antarctic penguins, Penguin Pat’s voice could be likened to the bell that signifies mealtimes, in the renowned psychological experiment “Pavlov’s Dog”.

Not an experiment – the ground-breaking training, involving conditioning penguins to recognise locations, name calling and hand gestures, was developed by expert keepers to ensure the shyer and more forward penguins alike, receive the correct quantity of fish and supplements.

It was established as feeding time challenges arose, after the colony size increased, following 11 king and gentoo penguins transferring to Sydney, from SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium, as part of an interstate breeding and population management scheme.

“All our adorable king and gentoo penguins have different personalities and traits and some are much louder and dominant than others,” said Patrick Nelson, keeper at SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium. Or as the other keepers refer to him – Penguin Pat.

“We quickly noticed, while penguins including Buddha and Parky were more than comfortable coming forward to feed well, other quieter penguins such as Cosmo and Winnie were sometimes struggling to get through the crowd”.

While visiting the sub-Antarctic penguins at SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium, guests have the chance to enjoy the free Penguin Expedition Boat Ride, and can catch the breakthrough feeding system daily, involving the following steps:

Keeper sits on a chair on the ice, with a rock step at their feet, in the same position daily
Penguin understands: This is the location we receive fish in every day, at this time

Keeper simultaneously calls by name and points to the penguin, beckoning it to the step
Penguin understands: That’s me. It’s my turn to come forward and step on the rock to receive fish

Keeper feeds the penguin the correct number of fish and supplements, for their unique requirements
Penguin understands: I’m enjoying my fish in peace and don’t have to compete with my colony

Keeper carries out a “you’re finished” hand gesture
Penguin understands: I won’t be given any more fish now, I may as well step away

The keeper then selects the next penguin. Runs steps 2 – 4 again. During the process, a second keeper records the number of fish and supplements successfully taken.

“On Penguin Awareness Day, SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium wishes to highlight that the sub-Antarctic penguins here, are ambassadors for their species. Reminding us of the plights faced by their counterparts in the wild. These threats include overfishing, plastic pollution and climate change,” said Patrick.

“Even small changes made at home can make a big difference to the world. Simple actions such as using a reusable coffee cup keep-cup, or purchasing sustainable seafood can help penguins in the wild,,” concluded Patrick.

For more information on the three species of penguin at SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium, or to secure tickets, visit: https://www.sydneyaquarium.com.au/