Real Life

Maddy’s wacky penguin world

The Auckland ice maiden introduces her Antarctic pals

As Woman’s Day creeps out on to the ice in the penguin enclosure at Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium in Auckland, we’re introduced to a chilly world full of colourful personalities and scandalous romances.

Recognising each bird by their posture, behaviour or tags, penguin team leader Madeline Seaman greets her charges by their names – and they greet her right back with a frantic “ecstatic display” of bowing.

Noah and Shadows are “the Brad and Angelina of the aquarium”, says Maddy, 26, pointing out a pair of loved-up gentoo penguins during our shoot, which happened before the Jolie-Pitt split! Then there are king penguins Thelma and Louise, a same-sex female couple who have been together for five years – they’ve only produced infertile eggs but have been “awesome mums” to several foster chicks.

“Their love stories would put most Hollywood marriages to shame,” she smiles. “Some penguins have been together for 19 years, but then I’ll also see some of them bowing to penguins they’re not coupled with and I’m like, ‘No, don’t you cheat on your husband!’”

Laughing, Maddy continues, “They’ve all got their individual characteristics and you can tell how they’re feeling by their actions. Sometimes – actually, quite a lot of the time – I forget they’re penguins. The other

day, one of my colleagues took a photo of one of the birds, Bubba, and when I looked at it without being able to see his behaviour, I had this realisation, ‘Oh, Bubba’s a penguin, not a person!’ It’s so silly.”

Growing up in Auckland, Maddy didn’t feel any special connection to wildlife until she started university. She recalls, “I was studying maths and physics, but then I sat in on a friend’s biology lecture where they were talking about jellyfish, and I just fell in love with animals and how they work. So I changed my degree and started getting some experience with the fish and penguins at Kelly Tarlton’s.”

After finishing her studies, Maddy spent three years working at an aquarium in the UK, but returned to New Zealand when her dad fell ill. Soon afterwards, she was offered her current position at Kelly Tarlton’s – a job previously held by her elder sister Laura, who left to expand her family.

Maddy’s role can be a pretty demanding one. She starts work at 7am and spends up to three hours preparing the enclosure – which is kept at 2 to minus 2 degrees Celsius – before the public arrives.

“We have to clean very thoroughly because penguins are susceptible to fungal and bacterial diseases,” she explains. “Sometimes it’s freezing and your body can’t handle it, but other times it feels really hot.”

Breeding season demands even longer hours and can be “really, really stressful”. Maddy tells, “The parents have varying levels of ability when it comes to parental care, so there’s two months when you’re having to be constantly on your toes. Last November and December, I was in every day for six weeks.”

But the personalities of the penguins more than make up for the difficult parts of the job, tells Maddy. “My favourite bird is a king penguin called Loaf, who is a real busybody and helicopter parent. He had a chick named Vogel last year and he’s just obsessed with him. He’s very protective of him – until he gets scared and then he hides behind his chick. He’s hilarious!

“Another favourite is Dallas, who’s quite shy and skittish. I’ve been helping her to become more confident and gradually getting her to come closer to me. A lot of my job is working with the birds as individuals, helping them feel themselves within the colony.

“People are so surprised by how complex and social the penguins’ lives are, and how much the birds can actually communicate without being able to speak. It’s amazing – it’s definitely made me look at people and their body language more closely!

“I often get carried away talking to our visitors about the birds because I know their whole family tree and their life’s history. I’m so lucky to be part of the family here at Kelly’s. It’s so rewarding. Sometimes I can’t believe this is actually my job!”

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