A colony of 15 Antarctic gentoo penguins are being kept at the heart of one of Vietnam’s largest and most modern aquariums on Phu Quoc Island.
At 4:00 pm sharp, Pham Minh Chien, an employee of Phu Quoc Vinpearl Land Aquarium, entered the ‘artificial Antarctica’ enclosure carrying a bucket of fish to feed the penguins.
Chien had barely stepped inside when the playful animals made a beeline for their caretaker over the icy flooring intended to mimic snow.
The 24-year-old laid out a white towel on a stool for the penguins to stand on while enjoying their afternoon feast, a habit that has been established since their resettlement from their former home in Australia.
According to Chien, there are 15 gentoo penguins being raised at the aquarium, ranging from three to 14 years of age and weighing between 4.5 and seven kilograms.
Each penguin is given an English name and a ‘personal’ number, which are printed on a color-coded tag attached to their wings along with their birthday and gender.
The penguins’ daily meal includes up to five different types of seafood and vitamin supplements, divided into four main portions, Chien said.
Being one of only two employees tasked with caring for the animals since their ‘immigration’ to Phu Quoc, Chien said he had grown familiar with each of the penguins’ habits and characters.
One penguin enjoyed lying on its side, Chien said, while another was rather clumsy with its feet, and two were too lazy to fetch their food underwater.
“And then there’s this one penguin that is so easily distracted during feeding time,” Chien said. “I see them as friends, not animals. Never before had I thought of working daily with such lovely animals.”
From Australia to Vietnam
The penguins’ enclosure is designed to mimic the Antarctic climate and weather conditions with dozens of giant ice machines working day and night to keep the animals cool.
Temperatures in the penguins’ habitat are maintained at around four degrees Celsius, while the water temperature is kept at no hotter than eight degrees Celsius.
“The artificial snow helps protect their feet,” said Thai Thi Nhung, head of the penguin team. “Whenever the freezers are not running at full power, aquarium employees will manually grind 50 columns of ice to make do. We are gradually lowering the temperature so that the penguins can adapt well to Vietnam’s climate.”
Every day between 8:30 pm and 8:45 pm, all lights in the area are turned off so that the penguins can take a quick uninterrupted nap, while during the day, only on-duty caretakers may enter the enclosure for feeding and cleaning.
Those who get direct contact with the animals are required to wear protective clothes and sanitized boots, and the penguins' swimming water is replaced daily to prevent any bacterial buildup.
“On their first day here, the penguins were so stressed and scared that they retreated into a corner and refused to move or come into the water,” Nhung said. “Now that they’re familiar with their new home, they have got a lot more confident and playful. To see them every day makes me feel younger and more blissful.”
Nhung joined a two-week training course in Australia in October 2014 on taking care of penguins before taking on her current post at the aquarium.
“We’ve had to make several adjustments to how we had been trained to look after the penguins, as Vietnam’s climate is very different from Australia’s,” Nhung explained. “The penguins are still being trained to adapt to the tropical climate of Phu Quoc Island.”