Very Happy Feet!
Jane Walker’s obsession has taken her tens of thousands of miles around the world. It’s shaped her adult life, brought her to Devon and to her job at Torquay’s Living Coasts. Her passion is penguins.
Why penguins? “They’re amazing animals, they live in extremes of hot and cold. You can't look at a penguin without smiling - what's not to love? I was given my first cuddly penguin – named Chilly - when I was about 10 years old - and my fascination with penguins began!”
From then on, it’s been penguins, penguins and more penguins. Now she works with penguins at Torquay’s coastal zoo - but even that is not enough for Jane. Her mission now is to see every species of penguin. “When I was 17 I met my now husband, Chaz. On our first date I told him about my love of penguins, and we agreed that on our fifth anniversary he would take me to Philip Island in Australia, to see the little - also known as the fairy or little blue penguin.
“It took a little longer than that, but for our honeymoon some ten years later we got there. I sat on the beach, right at the front, and waited till dusk, when the little penguins came out of the water. One came within two feet of where I was sitting – it stopped and just looked up at me for several minutes before it waddled off back to its family. From that moment I knew my ambition was to see all 17 species of penguin in the wild.”
Jane estimates that so far they have travelled about 64,000 miles in pursuit of penguins. That’s more than two times around the world… It seems that behind every obsessed woman is a pretty amazing man. “Chaz is a lovely guy! Our first date was 27 years ago. I did know I would marry him after only one date - not because of the promise of penguin trips! We just clicked. Still now when he goes on business trips he always brings me back a penguin. It's also him trawling through the internet for hours in search of the perfect penguin holiday. He really enjoys visiting new countries and the planning, particularly when it works out so well!”
About six years after their honeymoon the couple went to New Zealand, where Jane managed to tick off the yellow-eyed penguin in Dunedin. “We saw them coming onto the beach from a distance, as they are very shy and private penguins. We looked for fiordland penguins near Queenstown, but unfortunately they were nowhere to be seen.”
Then her love of penguins changed her life. “Ten years ago, whilst on holiday in Devon, we visited Living Coasts and saw the free-ranging penguins mixing with visitors – it was brilliant! I spent ages talking to the penguin patroller, whose job it was to keep an eye on the wandering birds and make sure people and penguins mixed happily. Driving back home to Birmingham, I told Chaz how much I would love to be a penguin patroller, but I went back to running my celebration cake business.”
Remarkably, ten months later Chaz got a job offer to come to Devon to work with boats, which are HIS passion. Jane’s first question was "How close is that to Living Coasts?" It turned out to be close. “I sold my cake business and our house and we moved to Devon. Then I applied to become a volunteer at Living Coasts.” On 10th February 2007 she started at Torquay’s coastal zoo and aquarium. “Part of my role was to cover penguin patrol breaks. In May one of the staff penguin patrollers left and I was lucky enough to get the job!”
Living Coasts penguin patrollers make sure both penguins and people have a safe and enjoyable experience when they meet. “We answer questions and talk about the penguins and the charity’s conservation projects, for example our support for SANCCOB, a South African bird rescue and rehabilitation group that does a lot for African penguins. I also do observations on the penguins for the keepers.
“I enjoy telling visitors about the penguins. I particularly love it when children are really interested and ask lots of questions. They love to see the eggs and feathers we keep to show them.”
Jane works with penguins every day – it’s her dream job. “I know all the macaroni penguins by name, I can recognise their flipper tags and have memorized most of their birthdays! As for our African penguins, there are more than 70, but I know over half by name - I know the names of all the others but I can't recognise every single bird.
“We shouldn’t have favourites, I love them all, of course, but if I am allowed to pick out a few by name then Solly, Yoyo and Babe the macaronis are all characters. As for the African penguins, well, there’s Pat our oldest, Kevin, Olive, Charlie.... OK, I could name them all…!”
The 2010 World Cup in South Africa presented Jane with her next opportunity to see penguins in the wild. “Chaz loves football, I love penguins - so he started planning a penguin/football holiday. We based ourselves in Simon's Town, just a five minute walk from Boulders Beach, where we could spend lots of time with the Endangered African penguins in between England matches. I also spent a couple of days working with SANCCOB. I helped with sick and injured wild African penguins.”
Jane recalls some penguin incidents. “Solly on the trolley! The ice cream trolley used to go past the penguins to get to the Jetty food outlet. One day Solly hopped on as it went through. The delivery man didn't notice till Solly jumped off as he unloaded the ice cream! The keepers had to carefully herd Solly back to Penguin Beach!”
On another occasion one penguin, Pickle, was in a bad mood and started pecking Jane’s legs. “Immediately another, Babe, came running over, chased him off then came back to preen me!”
Fast-forward to November 2014. “Chaz spotted a cruise around South America and the Falkland Islands. It was perfect, as there are several species of penguin in that part of the world. We booked and Chaz spent weeks planning how and where we could see the most penguins.”
In February this year they flew to Santiago, in Chile. “We hired a car and drove up the coast to Zapallar, where on Cachagua Island you can see Humboldt penguins. There were about 300 to 400, we spent the whole day watching them!
“We joined the cruise - our first port of call was Puerto Montt in Chile. Chaz had booked a private tour to Chiloe Island. This is the only place where Magellanic and Humboldt penguins breed in the same place. After a 90-minute drive it was just a short boat trip to the islands. There were a couple of hundred Magellanic and a few Humboldts. We were also very lucky to see marine otters.”
They cruised past the Amalia glacier and round to Punto Arenas. “Here we had a trip booked to Magdellana Island, home to a colony of 200,000 Magellanic penguins. This again involved a boat trip, but here we could get off and walk amongst the penguins, even though the island is a nature reserve.
“There were penguin rangers to make sure people didn’t get too close - rather like my job at Living Coasts! We saw about 20,000 penguins, a few chicks - as it was the end of breeding season - but most were moulting.”
Back on board ship they rounded Cape Horn and made for the Falkland Islands. “When we opened the curtains we could see penguins on the beach! We landed at Stanley and went off-road to Bluff Cove. Here there were about 2,000 gentoo and 15 king penguins. The gentoo had finished breeding and were in different stages of moulting. The kings had chicks and eggs. I was lucky enough to see one of the king penguins come from the water, waddle to his very fat and excited chick, display to it and then feed it!
“That afternoon our second tour was to Kidney Cove to see the rockhopper penguins. Kidney Cove was so beautiful; we spent two hours sitting with the birds. I loved watching them coming out of the water and hopping up the steep rocky slope – it’s what rockhoppers do best. Many were moulting, looking very fat and fluffy, others had come to the end of their moult and had their beautiful new set of feathers. It was very hard to leave them to go back to the ship. It was literally just us and the penguins.”
Their last port of call was Puerto Madryn. A two hour road trip took them to Punto Tombo, the largest Magellanic penguin colony in the world. “There are about one million penguins breeding here! There was a path lined with white rocks - visitors are told to stay inside the rocks. There were penguins roaming around everywhere in all directions and as far as the eye could see.
“The penguins have right of way. If they want to lie down in the middle of the path they can, and believe me, they do! We saw about 30,000 penguins in one day, more than I have seen in the rest of my life - and I’ve seen a lot of penguins!”
Since getting back from South America and the Falklands, the couple has started looking for their next penguin holiday. “Out of the 17 species of penguin we have nine still to see - and these nine are in places that are more difficult to reach. Antarctica, Galápagos Islands, Snares Island, Maquarie Island... I'm sure one day we will complete the list, with determination and my love of penguins. Chaz is already looking at trips to Antarctica…!”