Joan Moritz

Joan Moritz has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her recent work has appeared in Tilt-a-Whirl and Drash: Northwest Mosaic. She was born in New York City and now lives in Seattle, Washington.


Penguins in Flight

Penguins are migrating at the San Francisco Zoo.

I’m eating breakfast on a wet Seattle morning in January 2003 when I read this in the newspaper. Next to the short article, there is a photo of six penguins swimming. According to the story, there are fifty-two penguins at the zoo. Perhaps the other forty-six are less photogenic, or maybe they’re just shy. The penguins have been swimming since November.

The San Francisco Zoo is not actually on a migratory sea route, so the penguins are doing the next best thing. They are swimming laps around their pool. They begin early in the morning, and they swim all day. At dusk they stagger, spent, onto Penguin Island, eat a bite of herring, grab a few zzz’s, and start over again the next morning.

These Magellanic penguins are native to the Falkland Islands and coastal Chile and Argentina. In the wild, they migrate after their chicks are self-sufficient. They might travel, for example, from the Falkland Islands to the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, roughly a thousand miles away. Eventually, they go back home, logging a grand total of two thousand miles in a season. That’s equivalent to 26,400 laps around their pool. Someone at the zoo calculated this number.

Normally at this time of year, the zoo’s penguins are happily nestled in burrows with their mates. It’s their quiet time, the months before breeding. They clean house, maybe redecorate a bit, stuff like that. Not this year though.

The zoo has had penguins since 1984. Penguins live up to twenty-five years in the wild, and even longer in captivity, so it’s possible some of the birds have lived here since ’84. Many were born at the zoo. None of them has exhibited this type of behavior before.

Why did the penguins start migrating? Zookeepers blamed it on the new kids in town, those rogues from Sea World, near Cleveland, Ohio.

Sea World, home to the whales and penguins of the heartland, had run into financial trouble in the ’80’s, and the business was eventually sold to Six Flags, another theme park. The new owners decided to reduce the sea population, and, as a result, six penguins were put on the auction block. They ended up in San Francisco.

Zookeepers think the newcomers somehow convinced the local populace that the time for migration had come. They are at a loss to explain what the Ohioans might possibly have said or done to get this sort of reaction, so I’ve been thinking about it.

Here’s my theory. I think the penguins didn’t want to forget where they came from. I think they knew there was something fundamentally wrong with being hand fed, having their pool water cleaned weekly, and being given monikers like Pearl and Bluto. Oh, they may have accepted it, or at least grown used to it, but at heart they knew it wasn’t who they were.

I think they developed a mythology, a story to help them remember the old ways. It may have gone something like this: We were once a strong and powerful tribe living in a clear, cold sea filled with sardines and anchovies. One day, The Great Penguin, mother of us all, sent us, in her infinite wisdom, to live at the San Francisco Zoo. She swore she would return for us one day, and would lead us back to our ancestral feeding grounds. We must be ready.

Then along came the Ohio Six. Because the San Francisco Zoo had been extremely successful at breeding penguins in captivity, these were the first outsiders ever to arrive at the zoo. The message was clear. These newcomers had been sent by The Great Penguin to lead them home.

The San Francisco penguins were ready. They jumped into the water surrounding Penguin Island and took off. Now, each day, they start at dawn and swim laps until dusk. When the pool is emptied for cleaning, they walk on its concrete bottom. They are too tired to eat much, and they’re losing weight, but they are not about to miss this opportunity.

Maybe it seems as though they end up at the same place every night. Maybe the burrows they fall into at the end of the day are a tad too comfy, a bit too familiar. It doesn’t make any difference to them. This is about faith. This is about destiny.

If it takes 26,400 laps to get there, I figure they must be half-way home by now. I know when they arrive life will be harder in many ways. There will be predators and sickness and days of hunger. There may be oil spills. I don’t know how they’ll deal with global warming.

But I do know this: At the end of the journey, they will be free.

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