She has hand-raised more penguin chicks than she can count, helped manage the largest animal rescue in history and has an astounding amount of passion and compassion which is clear the second you meet her. We’re honored that penguin expert, TED speaker, and award-winning author Dyan deNapoli is leading Absolute Travel’s first Explorers Club Trip: Close Encounters in the Land of the Kiwis: A Quest for Penguins.
What inspired your love for penguins?
Truth be told, I’ve always been much more of a mammal person. (Shhh–don’t tell the penguins!) It wasn’t until I returned to college at the age of 32 to become a veterinary nurse, and landed an internship in the Penguin Department at the New England Aquarium in Boston, that I first met and fell in love with penguins. From the moment I stepped into the penguin exhibit I was hooked! I was surprised to learn that each bird had its own distinct personality. Every penguin also recognized its own name, and would respond by calling back or swimming over to you (if they felt like it, much like a cat). I was intrigued by these quirky birds and wanted to learn more about them, so I pursued a position in the Penguin Department after graduating.
Do you have to be a penguin fanatic to go on our Explorers Club penguin trip? What can a traveler expect?
Absolutely not. But if you do love penguins, you should be leaving New Zealand with a big smile on your face! While the primary purpose of this expedition is to see penguins, the best viewing times are early morning and at sunset, so this leaves time to see and do other things during the day. New Zealand is spectacularly beautiful – and for the adventurous, there’s hiking, kayaking, hot-air ballooning, bungee jumping, sailing, and more. And if you love wildlife, there’s much more to see than just penguins. There are seals and sea lions, whales and dolphins, albatross and petrels, and many other bird species. And there are scenic vistas that will take your breath away.
Most memorable penguin moment? (We know you have one.)
I have several that stand out, so choosing just one is nearly impossible. Can I share three?
1.) The funniest moment was seeing SANCCOB, the first penguin I’d raised at the aquarium, furiously attempting to mate with a pool-vacuum hose that was floating on the surface of the water. My loud guffawing snapped him out of his hormonal frenzy – but only long enough for him to give me the stink-eye before returning to his task.
2.) The most sobering moment was the first time I entered the Salt River Penguin Rescue Centre in Cape Town, South Africa during the Treasure oil spill rescue in 2000. We had just arrived to help train and supervise 12,500 inexperienced volunteers who had come to help us care for the birds. The massive warehouse was filled with 19,000 penguins, and the sight of so many oil-covered, mute, and traumatized birds was heartbreaking. It was the largest animal rescue that had ever been attempted, and at that point, no one knew if we could pull it off. It was definitely one of the most overwhelming moments of my life.
3.) And the most awe-inspiring moment was in 2009, when I was working as the guest expert and lecturer on a nature cruise to Antarctica. I will never forget the first time I stepped onto the Antarctic Peninsula – it was right in the midst of a huge rookery of Gentoo penguins and their fat, fluffy chicks. I was finally seeing my first Antarctic penguins, and I could not stop smiling!
Can you talk about the intersection between travel and conservation (and how it relates to penguins)?
Ecotourism often plays a very important role in the fight to conserve Threatened and Endangered penguin species. When wildlife viewing is carried out in a controlled and responsible manner, it can actually help to protect and preserve the habitat of the animals. Encountering an animal in the wild increases one’s understanding and appreciation of that animal and its environment. And knowledge and caring are what lead to making a difference. Because scientific funding for conservation programs is quite scarce, the awareness and monies raised through nature tourism can provide critically needed support for rehabilitators, researchers, and conservationists.
Top 3 places to see penguins in the wild?
Antarctica is undeniably the ultimate destination for penguin viewing. The unique landscape and vastness of the region make you feel like you’ve just been dropped onto another planet. When you couple the breathtaking surroundings with the sheer volume of penguins there, Antarctica really can’t be beat!
New Zealand is definitely high on my list. Not only is the scenery spectacular, the number of penguin species you can potentially see there is unmatched (even in Antarctica). While several of these rarer species are only found on sub-Antarctic islands south of New Zealand, you can see Yellow-eyed, Fiordland, and Little Blue penguins (and the rare White-flippered penguin; a subspecies of the Little Blue) on the South Island.
Another must-visit spot is Boulders Beach in Simonstown, South Africa. The penguins here have become very accustomed to people, and will even waddle across your beach towels – and boldly walk right into nearby homes as well! This species was listed as Endangered in 2010, and could potentially be extinct in the wild within a decade, so there is some sense of urgency if you want to see these charismatic seabirds firsthand.
Another place I’d be remiss in not mentioning is the Galapagos Islands. (OK, that’s four – but I just can’t leave out any one of these spots!) The Galapagos penguin is highly Endangered, with just 1,000 to 2,500 birds left, so the window of opportunity to see this species is shrinking as well. Because of their small population size, you won’t see large numbers of penguins in the Galapagos Islands – but that makes the thrill of encountering them even greater.
So, how did you come to be known as The Penguin Lady?
After nine years at the New England Aquarium, I struck out on my own to teach children and adults about penguin biology, behavior, and conservation (which I’ve been doing for nine years now). My mission is to raise awareness and funding to protect penguins, so I donate 20% of my proceeds to penguin conservation groups. My moniker and business name actually arose very organically. When I worked at the aquarium, people would see me standing in the penguin exhibit surrounded by 70 penguins and they’d exclaim, “Look! It’s the penguin lady!” So, when trying to come up with a name for my new educational venture, it instantly felt like the right fit.
How would your friends describe you?
Friendly, adventurous, creative, and very passionate about what I do.
Tell us a bit about your life before you became known as The Penguin Lady.
I grew up in the small, coastal town of Marblehead, Massachusetts. My parents loved nature and the outdoors, and we spent our summers sailing and our winters skiing. When it comes to my career path, I definitely did not take a traditional route. After graduating from college (the first time), I drove across the country to be a ski bum at Copper Mountain in Colorado. After that, I worked as a waitress, and had my own jewelry business for eight years. It was actually my work as a jeweler that inspired me to return to college for the second time.
I’ve always had a very deep love of animals, and while I’d always wanted to do something to help save endangered species, I couldn’t imagine what one person could do to make a difference. After several years as a silversmith, I created a line of endangered species jewelry and donated a portion of the proceeds to environmental groups. It felt good to do something to help animals, but eventually it didn’t feel like enough, and I felt compelled to do something more tangible to make a difference. That is when I returned to school to become a veterinary nurse.
You served as a rehabilitation manager during the world’s largest penguin rescue – tell us a bit about that experience.
In a word…it was intense! It was also inspiring, life-changing, and truly unforgettable. I was privileged to be a member of the first US team of penguin experts called to South Africa to help rehabilitate 19,000 penguins that were oiled when a ship sank near their breeding grounds. Against all odds, 91% of the penguins were successfully released back into the wild.
This still stands as the largest and most successful animal rescue ever undertaken – and if not for the thousands of laypeople who volunteered to help, these birds would have died. The Great Penguin Rescue, my account of this dramatic event, was published by Simon & Schuster on the 10-year anniversary of the Treasure oil spill. The following year, my TEDxBoston talk about the rescue was featured on the home page of TED.com.
What is something about penguins that many people might not know?
Most people are very surprised to learn that 15 of the 18 penguin species are currently listed as Threatened or Endangered. Nearly every penguin species has lost 50-98% of its population in the last 20-100 years, and a few species could go extinct within the next few decades if environmental conditions don’t change.
And, on the lighter side – despite many popular claims to the contrary, penguins DO have knees! In addition, most penguin species do NOT live in Antarctica – most of them actually live in temperate climates, and there’s even a tropical species (the Galapagos penguin) that lives right at the equator.
Tell us a bit about some of your favorite travel experiences.
I’ve always loved travelling and experiencing different cultures, and have visited all seven continents and eighteen countries so far. And, as an animal lover and amateur photographer, wildlife viewing has always been an important part of my travels. Some of my more memorable trips include a camping trip to Isla de Mona (ask me about the black widows and poisonous foot-long centipedes), three bareboat charters in the Virgin Islands, a ‘round-the-world trip in 2006 that included stops in NZ, AU, KL, India, and the UK, a trip to Italy during which my dad and I accidentally skied into Switzerland, and lecturing about penguins on board ships in the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica.
What’s always on your packing list?
No-Jet-Lag homeopathic tablets for long-haul trips (they really work!), Relief-Band for voyages across heavy seas (which also really works), comfy travel clothes, a small backpack, a hand-held luggage scale (to avoid those annoying overweight bag fees), and finally; earplugs, an eye-mask, and my super-soft pillow (laugh if you will, but these three items always assure me a good night’s sleep).