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Feathers are flying at the SEA LIFE London Aquarium as the resident Gentoo penguins shed their plumage in an annual “catastrophic” moult. The cycle is called catastrophic because unlike most birds, penguins shed all their feathers at once and a common description of their appearance at this time is “exploding pillows”.
“It is a perfectly natural process that lasts around three weeks but undoubtedly the penguins do look very different as their new feathers begin to grow on top of their old ones and the old ones eventually shed,” explains Senior Displays Supervisor Lucy Buckley. “We put up signs in the area to help guests understand what is happening as the creatures, quite understandably and again totally naturally, can also get a bit moody during moulting. In fact, they can resemble surly irritable teenagers having a bad hair day - a bit like Harry Enfield's characters Kevin and Perry!"
The beginning of the moulting season is signaled by a significant increase in food intake and body weight as the penguins prepare to remain on dry land and fast for two to three weeks. During the actual moult they are not waterproof so they confine themselves to land until their new plumage has grown in and they can resume their usual aquatic activities.
“We are two weeks into the cycle now and our Gentoos are faring very well, although they may not look their best,” continued Lucy. “Because the new feathers grow over the old ones they are never bald, but it is a patchy process and when the old layer sheds there’s certainly a lot of cleaning up to do. They should all be back to their usual slick and playful selves very soon.”
The SEA LIFE London Aquarium is home to a colony of Gentoo penguins who reside in a specially designed Antarctic themed area where guests can see them at very close quarters.