Skip to main content

The Princesses and the penguins

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Communications
Photos by: Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo

Hispanic Seafair Queen Tania Santiago gets up close with penguin Cortez thanks to zookeeper Celine Pardo.

Curator Mark Myers shows off a wand to this year's Seafair Princesses, but this wand isn't normally meant to go with tiaras. “This is a metal detector,” Mark explains. “Any idea why we might need a metal detector in the penguin exhibit?”

“To see if they ate any coins?” a Princess correctly guesses.

“That’s right, penguins like shiny objects,” Mark explains, as the ladies all self-consciously look at each other’s sparkling tiaras. Better not drop those in the penguin pool!

63rd Annual Miss Seafair Veronica Asence holds a penguin egg (don't worry, it's empty!).

But our crowned cadre is too composed to have to worry about that. This year's Seafair Princesses, participants in the Seafair Scholarship Program for Women, got to go behind the scenes at the zoo's award-winning Humboldt penguin exhibit to see the hidden side of the zoo. The experience is part of the numerous community events and parades the Princesses attend to showcase their academic abilities, public speaking skills, talents and community service achievements.

Zookeeper Celine Pardo introduces the Seafair Princesses to the zoo's penguin exhibit.

The visit began with a stop at the public side of the exhibit, where zookeeper Celine Pardo explained some of the penguin behavior and biology on display as the birds hopped around, swam and sunned in the background. Hispanic Seafair Princess, Karla Ciccia, felt a special connection to the birds when she learned they are Peruvian like her. Others felt a connection when they realized they share a food preference with Humboldt penguins—anchovies.

The Princesses examine the downy, inner feathers that help insulate penguins.

For a closer look at the endangered birds, the Seafair Princesses headed behind the scenes to see how keepers care for them. They stopped in the kitchen where penguin food is prepared, the pool room where chicks first learn to swim, and the burrow room where nesting pairs gather.

Mark Myers explains how the penguin burrow room provides nesting areas for mated birds.

But it was at the penguin gate—where keepers enter the exhibit and penguins exit—that the young women got their first truly up-close glimpse of the birds. Whether it was the shiny tiaras or just curiosity about new faces, a number of penguins came waddling over to the gate to check out the crowd. “Go ahead, you can touch him,” was easily the most popular thing Mark said all day, as the Princesses excitedly lined up to feel the smooth, waterproof coat of Cortez, a male penguin who was born at Woodland Park Zoo.

Japanese Queen Scholarship Program of Washington's Christine Ito feels the smooth feathers of penguin Cortez.

Penguin chicks abound in the exhibit, and the Princesses learned about the Species Survival Plan management program that pairs up penguins for breeding and to maintain genetic diversity and demographic health in the population. Conservation breeding became the theme that connected all of their stops, as the group went on to meet the jaguar cubs and then the sloth bear cubs.

Stopping to greet new friends at the zoo.

As they made their way around the zoo, the Princesses drew gasps from little girls who delighted to pose for photos with them. Not to be outdone, three little boys perhaps were the most excited all day, punching the air with the thrill of having met so many Princesses at once! Faces light up whenever the Seafair Princesses are around—the gracious young women smile for photos, chat up community members, and remind us of what a wonderfully diverse and fun-loving community we share.

The Seafair Princesses pose at the zoo's Historic Carousel.

Look for the Princesses around the community all summer long as Seafair activities continue, and perhaps they can teach you a thing or two about penguins when you see them!