It’s that time of year again – time to celebrate Penguin Awareness Day, which falls on Jan. 20 every year. This year’s celebration is especially important as we focus not only on the African penguins at Georgia Aquarium, but penguins around the world.

Last month, Georgia Aquarium penguin care experts joined the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) to assist in releasing a total of 57 rehabilitated African penguin chicks. These chicks are stranding in increasing numbers over recent years, averaging between 600 and 900 penguin chicks per year. This is due to environmental factors, including oil spills, food shortage, degrading habitats, and predators.

Kristen Hannigan, senior trainer, and Gina Fisher, associate curator, both had the opportunity to spend two weeks in November and December at SANCCOB helping with the rehabilitation process. For both Kristen and Gina, it was their first time visiting the seabird rescue facility, but it is an experience that neither will forget.

Before leaving for South Africa, they spoke to team members who had traveled to and worked at SANCCOB in the past, hoping to better understand what to expect. “We knew that the days were going to be long,” said Gina. “We knew the flights getting there would be long, we knew what equipment we would be using, but there was no way to fully be prepared until we were immersed and working with the penguin chicks.”

The days were long, averaging around 11 or 12 hours, going on for 10 or more consecutive days. The team would start at 8 a.m., checking the daily planning board to find their assigned areas. After a quick morning briefing, Kristen and Gina picked up their protective gear, including arm guards, eye protection, oilskin slickers, and gloves and got to work.

The first task of each day was to supply each penguin with a combination of medication, supplements and electrolytes. At 10 a.m., the penguins were given fish and formula, with water at noon, followed by fish and formula again at 4 p.m. Between the feedings, volunteers and workers prepared and cleaned up the food and pens, as well as kept very detailed records of each penguin. The pens held anywhere from 100 to 200 penguin chicks, all needing to be fed and cared for on a rigorous schedule.

“Each day you had to absolutely be on top of your game,” said Kristen. “The work we were all doing played such an important part in helping save this species. My favorite part of the trip, besides the release, was being able to be there when the 1,000th penguin chick was rescued by SANCCOB. That penguin was then adopted by Georgia Aquarium as part of the Adopt-A-Penguin program, which allows us to care for these animals on another level.”

 “It was a humbling experience to work in this facility,” said Gina. “I loved seeing that no matter where you go in the world, people care. SANCCOB was a great example of how much they care for their animals. The long hours, the bites, everything – was absolutely worth it. My favorite part was using what they called “peaceful sleep,” which was a medication that we put on the penguins’ heads to help repel mosquitoes. It was just that step further in their care, like we were saying ‘goodnight, we did it.’”

In November, Kristen and other volunteers assisted in the release of 23 African penguins, and in December, Gina and other volunteers assisted in the release of 34 penguins.

“It’s important for everyone to realize how endangered these animals are, and why they’re endangered, and know that if we don’t do something to change their threats in the Southern Africa, we won’t have them anymore,” said Kristen. “If SANCCOB lost funding or never even existed, these chicks wouldn’t make it and this species would be in significantly worse trouble than they already are.”

When asked if the trip to SANCCOB would impact how they viewed Penguin Awareness Day this year, both trainers nodded.

“I would definitely say that SANCCOB reassured the importance of Penguin Awareness Day for me,” said Gina. “What I was able to experience was astounding, but not only that, I was also able to share my personal experiences and share the interest and care of African penguins, and now my experiences at SANCCOB live through me to others.”

Follow Georgia Aquarium on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram to see all of our Penguin Awareness Day coverage. Visit Georgia Aquarium on January 21 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. to Party with the Penguins! For an up close view of our African penguins, don’t miss our Waddle Walk. To learn more about SANCCOB and to donate, please visit sanccob.co.za/donate. To adopt and sponsor a penguin chick at SANCCOB, please visit sanccob.co.za/adopt