THE BLOG
11/03/2013 09:05 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

How SeaWorld Keeps the Body Clocks of Its Antarctic Penguins on South Pole Time

You know that out-of-sync feeling you have for those first few days after Daylight Savings Time? Where your internal body clock is telling you that it's one time while the light levels outside are telling you that it's an entirely different time?

Well, then imagine how tough it must be to be an Antarctic penguin on display in Orlando. Where -- because you're now living in the Northern Hemisphere rather than the Southern -- you're a full six months out-of-sync. And because the light outside is telling you that it's Fall while your internal body clock is telling you that it's Spring, you now don't know whether to mate or molt.

Well, back in 1983, the animal care specialists at SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment recognized that being over 8,000 miles away from home might be an issue for these aquatic, flightless birds. Which is why -- when they were building SeaWorld San Diego's Penguin Encounter exhibit some 30 years ago -- SeaWorld not only installed a ridiculously large air conditioning unit (to keep this habitat at a brisk 30 degrees) but also hung an elaborate lighting rig which then allowed them to replicate Antarctica's seasonal light cycle.

Now you have to understand that no one in zoological circles had ever done something like this before. Combining quartz halogen lights, LEDS, metal halide lights, quartz halogens and theatrical sunset lamps to replicate what the sunlight was supposed to be like in another part of the world.

Mind you, the folks at SeaWorld San Diego didn't stop there. They then went on make daily adjustments to the Penguin Encounter's lightning pattern. So that -- for the flightless birds living in this exhibit space -- the sun would first rise and then set at the exact time as it would down at the South Pole. They even made an effort to simulate Antarctica's springtime light and wintertime dark.

As you might imagine, a behind-the-scene effort like this -- especially back in the early 1980s -- was very hands-on. With the animal care specialists at SeaWorld San Diego (not to mention the electricians who worked at this theme park) constantly flipping switches, adjusting dimmers and replacing light bulbs as they tried to get this habitat's light levels just right.

Of course, there were those who wondered if all this extra effort & expense would ever pay off. I mean, what could possibly be gained by keeping the birds who were on display in Penguin Encounter on the exact same light cycle as their natural counterparts down at the South Pole?

A lot, actually. According to the veterinarians who worked at SeaWorld San Diego, once the aquatic, flightless birds were placed in sync with their natural lighting cycle, there was a noticeable uptick in these penguins' overall health & level of social engagement. Which perhaps explains the more than 500 chicks have been hatched & raised in this habitat, including the zoological world's first-ever Emperor and Chinstrap penguins.

Now jump ahead to 2010, when the folks at SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment had just decided to build Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. This 4 acre addition to SeaWorld Orlando would the largest in that theme park's history and would feature a high-tech ride, a restaurant and a gift shop. But its real highlight would be the 6,125-square-foot habitat found at the very end of this attraction. Where nearly 250 penguins from four different Antarctic species would then frolic inside of a 144,300-gallon salt water tank.

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And -- of course -- to help keep the aquatic, flightless birds on display here healthy & happy, SeaWorld Orlando was going to do just what SeaWorld San Diego had done with its Penguin Encounter exhibit back in the early 1980s. It was going to try and replicate the exact seasonal light conditions that are found down at the South Pole.

But because we've come an awfully long way from those old hand-adjusted dimmers / light switch days, a computer now powers the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin's interior lighting system. And it's this computer's programming that now adjusts the light levels in this SeaWorld Orlando habitat on a daily basis to recreate natural sunrise-to-sunset as well as seasonal light patterns.

And speaking of seasonal light patterns: When Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin first opened back in May of this year, many visitors to SeaWorld Orlando's newest addition were disappointed when they discovered how low light levels were inside of this new habitat. Which -- because of this theme park's no-flash-photography-inside-of-animal-exhibits policy -- made it very difficult to get decent photographs of all the Gentoo, Adelie & Rockhopper penguins on display there.

As you might expect, there was a reason that light levels inside of Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin were kept so low six months ago. You see, May is the South Pole's equivalent of November. And given that it can be dark 20 hours a day during this time of year down in the Antarctica ... Well, that's why it was only SeaWorld Orlando visitors who entered this habitat between 10:30 a.m. & 1:30 p.m. who got to see these aquatic, flightless birds under full simulated sunlight conditions.

But the upside is -- now that Spring has finally come to the South Pole -- the days are getting longer & longer inside of the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin exhibit. So anyone who visits SeaWorld Orlando in the coming months will then be able to take advantage of the rapidly improving light conditions and get far better pictures of the flightless birds on display here.

Best of all, because it's now going to get darker sooner at SeaWorld Orlando, visitors to this Central Florida theme park will then get to see the elaborate architectural lighting that Candela Controls created for this 4 acre area. Which then replicates many of the unique & colorful lighting conditions that Antarctica explorers encounter when they wander around the real version of this frozen wasteland.
But the downside is ... Because it can then get downright cool after the sun goes down in Orlando these days, visitors to SeaWorld may not want to linger long enough to actually see how these 50 foot-tall faux glaciers seemingly glow from within at night. Especially if these people have just been inside Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin's habitat. Where -- thanks to the 5 tons of fake snow that gets pumped into this exhibit daily -- a person can get chilled to the bone after just a few minutes of standing inside this frigid environment.

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Thankfully, all you have to do to escape this 30 degree display is quickly step through a nearby revolving door. Where you'll then find yourself in a much warmer environment standing in front of some floor-to-ceiling windows. Which then allow you to view dozens of penguins "flying" through the water inside of this 16 foot-deep salt water tank.

Anyway ... If you're one of those people who suffers from SAD (i.e. Seasonal Affective Disorder. That mood disorder where people who have normal mental health during the Spring & the Summer months suddenly find themselves dealing with depression as Fall gives way to Winter), you can perhaps take some comfort in knowing that there are penguins in Antarctica, Orlando & San Diego who now have a bit more spring in their step because Spring is finally arrived at the South Pole.

Jim Hill is an award-winning entertainment writer who lives in New Boston, NH. Over the past 30 years, he has interviewed hundreds of veterans of the animation & themed entertainment industry and written extensively about The Walt Disney Company.

Jim is currently working on a behind-the-scene history of the development & construction of Disneyland. For his more immediate musings on movies, TV shows, books and theme parks, please check out his blog, jimhillmedia.com.