Prison-break Penguin

ORCA received a call from the downtown Lima police station stating that they had a penguin in custody. Her story was that she was found in someone’s house and handed in to the police, where she was kept in a form of penguin prison until the police could figure out what to do with her. Her true background story isn’t known, she may have been caught as a pet or for the meat trade or just an accidental fishing catch, however she was a good weight so she must not have been harmed. If ORCA hadn’t agreed to break her out of prison she would have been sent to a zoo, or if the zoo didn’t have room her, her future would have been very bleak. Her name became Poppy and she arrived on Thursday evening, being put to bed in a high up kennel to resemble the caves that young penguins are raised in.

Poppy the penguin is a roughly 3 month old Humboldt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti), found only off the coasts of Peru and Chile. Humboldts keep their young in caves, preferably amongst guano, and both parents take care of the young for 70-90 days, meaning she hadn’t been on her own for very long. Humboldt penguins grow between 56-66cms in height and weigh up to 5kgs. They have a distinctive black horseshoe band on their front and pink from their eye to their beak but because Poppy was a juvenile she hadn’t developed her adult moult yet. This species is highly influenced by the cold, nutrient rich waters of the Humboldt Current flowing from Antarctica, providing a productive area for plankton, krill and thus increasing fish abundance. Their main diet is small fish such as anchovies and sardines which they will swallow whole. The current population of the Humboldt Penguin is estimated to be between 3,300 and 12,000 individuals, with the IUCN listing them as threatened.

The Humboldt penguin used to be highly abundant but was first threatened by the mining of guano deposits for fertilisers, drastically reducing their numbers. Since then the species has seen large population size fluctuations. One natural threat to the species is the effects of El Niño, where the cold, nutrient rich waters are reduced, thus causing a decline in the number of fish species and therefore the penguins. The 1982-83 El Niño reduced the population from approximately 20,000 individuals to only 5,500. Although the numbers steadily rose again the 1997-98 El Niño also caused another decline to only 3,300 Humboldt penguins. Humans still cause an ongoing threat towards the species, with penguins becoming caught in commercial fishing nets, oil pollution, for human consumption, the pet trade or just a decrease in fish due to the increasing numbers of fishermen, leading to starvation. Penguins can lose their body weight very quickly if they don’t eat adequately, therefore we knew Poppy had been eating. Not only does their body weight decline quickly but so does their appetite – leading to the Penguins becoming unable to eat anything, which is a problem with receiving starved penguins in rehabilitation.

ORCA normally receives around 7 penguins a year, most brought to the house directly by people and often their appetites have decreased too much already that they develop other problems and sadly cannot be rehabilitated successfully. Birds are very sensitive and need to be given the upmost care. Another rehabilitation consideration is that penguins harbour diseases and parasites that can be easily transmitted to sea-lions. With 3 sea-lions currently in rehabilitation, we had to ensure everything was completely segregated, meaning separate cleaning tools, separate locations and even different clothes whether you were working with the penguin or the sea-lions.

The sensitivity of penguins became very obvious with Poppy on her first full day. We had constructed an indoor and an outdoor enclosure for her – complete with a paddling pool to keep cool. Penguins thermo-regulate through their feet and therefore need to soak them regularly to cool down. It is currently summer so the temperatures reach 26C most days with a strong sun. After moving her to her outdoor enclosure she fed well then resumed what penguins spend the majority of their day doing – not a lot, generally staying in the same place and only moving to excrete in a new location. There were signs of acid in her excrements, however we concluded it was due to her not feeding the day before and the stress of being in “prison”.

After an hour, she began to overheat very dramatically – signs of this are breathing through the beak, feet going from pale to red and lying down whilst breathing through the mouth. Poppy was displaying all these signs but after placing her standing in the pool she cooled down and resumed her calm disposition. Whilst with us she would tend to overheat very quickly, this may have been a sign of an infection, therefore she was treated with a set of antibiotics to help her if this was the case, or it may just have been that not being around other penguins or in a strange environment she couldn’t behave naturally and cool herself down as normal. When it became too hot she was moved to her indoor enclosure.

At night we moved her into the kennel she’d previously been in. However we then found her displaying the overheating symptoms again, but this time she was not overheating. She looked very stressed which is not normal considering Humboldt penguins spend a large amount of their time in warm and small enclosed dens. We don’t know what had happened in her past encounter with humans therefore we had to conclude it was an anxiety attack – she’d been traumatised in some way. We were sure this was the answer and not an illness because when placed back into her indoor inclosure she was much more calm, so we decided to keep her there overnight. She still looked slightly stressed but exhausted more than anything – this penguin had been through a lot these few days! I’d become very attached to Poppy and took her as my responsibility, so being a worried carer I woke several times throughout the night to go check on her and make sure she was ok. To my delight in my half-awake state she was always standing there completely fine and resting – looking much less stressed the more I checked up on her.

Saturday morning started with a similar routine – this time moving her to the pool every hour just incase, to keep her body at a regular temperature. Because we deemed her healthy but observed her obvious anxiety at various aspects of captivity, we wanted to return her as soon as possible because penguins should not be kept in isolation, especially not for prolonged periods of time. Her appetite was still very good, therefore in the afternoon we took her to the beach to carry out behavioural tests to see if she was ready for release. A large crowd formed but she wasn’t fazed and this became an opportunity for people to be made aware of ORCA and the rehabilitation procedures. Poppy showed signs of really wanting to return to the ocean, she’d try to dive into the rock pool we were examining her in, she ate a fish by herself in the water and was climbing the rocks – meaning she was ready for release. We couldn’t let her go there and then because at South beach at San Bartolo there are many rocks, a strong tide, many people and boats and more importantly, no penguins nearby, so we took her back to the marine mammal centre and organised the transportation for her release the next day.

South of San Bartolo is playa Asia where Isla Asia is located. Here is a large Humboldt penguin colony, where they live in close proximity to Pelicans (Pelecanus thagus) Cormorants (Phalacrocorax brasilianus and Phalacrocorax gaimardi) and the South American Sea-lion (Otaria flavescens). Unlike in other parts of the world where penguins fall prey to sea-lions, here they live and feed in the same areas with no problems. Placed in the penguin backpack and kept on my front we climbed onto the back of the police jet ski and headed out to the island where we incredibly got to see the species of animals we’d been rescuing living in their natural environments. As we got closer to the island, Poppy became more mobile, trying to escape from the bag – she was ready to return to the ocean! She was released in a good location near many others and began to swim around successfully. We watched her swim off, hopefully to go join the others and carry out a very normal and happy life. We have all the belief behind Poppy becoming a successful adult Humboldt penguin!

As for us, we had to dismantle her enclosures and disinfect everything she’d touched to protect our other inhabitants, but only after we got the call that another sea-lion had stranded nearby, therefore we went straight to rescue the next animal in need, a reminder that currently there is a crisis and there will always be another animal that needs ORCA’s help, so hopefully they can all have the positive outcome that Poppy had.


Emily McParland
BSc Environmental Sciences
January Intern 2015 from England


Ringo’s Release

After a month of rehabilitation at Orca, Ringo the sealion was ready to be released back in to the wild.

Ringo was brought in to Orca totally blind, after a trauma to the head. When ready for release, he had regained the sight in one eye 100% and 80% in the other.

Ringo was taken by a coast guard boat to Palomino Island, an island populated by hundreds of sealions, where he was released by five Orca interns. When his kennel door was opened, Ringo did not hesitate, and promptly jumped in to the ocean and swam towards his friends. It was such an emotional experience for everyone, to know Ringo would have a second chance at life. He didn’t look back…….goodbye Ringo and stay safe!

Ringo waiting for release
Ringo waiting for release

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Written by Michelle Jeffrey, ORCA Intern from England, winter 2014.

The story of a tiny little fish… and the meaning of captivity

I thought about writing this before, dropped the idea again, but after what I heard yesterday about the penguin prison, I just had to write it. I couldn’t sleep last night out of anger and frustrations…

It is a story based on two little events that happened about a month ago. The first one was in the north of Peru. During a field trip we hired a fisherman to take us with his boat out to open waters to collect recordings of dolphins and whales. At some point I jumped in the water, something I love to do. I don’t have much experiences on boats, especially not at open sea, so I think this was the first time in my life that I jumped in the water so far away from land. It was AMAZING! The space, the freedom, the absence of boundaries, just the endless ocean with in one direction far away a stripe of land that looked limited and unattractive.


There I was, drifting weightless, embraced by this immense body of water, just happy and enjoying. I finally really understood all the animals we had at the base, their desire to escape all the time, often more for the sake of escaping, rather than the desire to go to a different place.


They don’t understand the concept of solid boundaries and being locked up in a limited space. In their world these things simply don’t exist. A lot of land animals are, I think, a bit more used to these kind of things because the landscape itself has a lot of boundaries: a mountain, a cliff, a river, etc. We always have to find our way around it, or at least think about these obstacles. But what else than its own physical limitations or maybe a predator stops a sea lion from swimming wherever it wants to go? The ocean is SO BIG! Suddenly having a wall in front of their nose is something marine animals simply can’t accept. Take Chino for example, he sacrificed his own wings just because he couldn’t accept the boundaries. He just had to be free! That desire was bigger than anything else…


A couple of days later I saw the dolphins Yaku and Wayra in their tiny little dirty pool, stuck in there for years, always aware of the ocean so nearby, always hearing ‘home’ calling. After seeing the big pod of dolphins in the north happily jumping around talking to their friends and family, this was just way TOO sad, TOO horrible, TOO cruel and impossible to understand. The real meaning of captivity never explained itself better. It is nothing but a torture…

Another event that happened around that time made 2 other concepts very clear: the meaning of ‘wild animal’ and the power of ‘natural triggers’.


Carlos and I went fishing to get alive fishes for Ron and Chino to test their fishing skills. One of the fishes was so tiny that neither Ron nor Chino discovered it in the pool even though it had been in there several times. Amazingly the little fishy survived 3 times being in the fresh water pool and on top of that being in Chino’s lunch plate. It survived 2 days and 2 nights swimming around in a little bucket. A miracle! When it was still alive the 3rd morning we decided that it definitely deserved to be released. That’s what we did. Maybe the little fishy was eaten straight away, but at least it had had this brief moment of happiness being home, instead of slowly dying in a strange and lonely place… Because even this tiny little silly fishy displayed emotions like fear, sadness and stress. Even this fishy felt totally out of place and severely uncomfortable with the situation, though it had (compared to its size) enough space to swim and salty water with enough oxygen to survive. What does this imply for more intelligent creatures? How can you possibly keep a dolphin, sea lion or penguin in a little pool? Sure, at first all these animals, like the little fishy will survive if the very basic needs (like enough food) are met. Like people if they go to prison, they won’t die straight away. It seems that when freedom is taking away, animals (and people) enter some kind of survival mode, maybe coming from some kind of instinctive drive to stay alive. How well an animal survives basically depends on the capability to adapt. It survives, but at what costs? Soon, if not immediately, emotions like anxiety, fear, depression, stress and loneliness take over and if these continue, it can result in apathetic behavior, total madness, self-destructive behavior, self-harm, aggression and even suicide. That’s what you see in Chino breaking his wings, in Yaku bumping with his head against the wall all the time, or in orcas killing other orcas and people around them. Why? because they go mad, they don’t belong there, they can’t adapt to a place that is not even a glimpse of their natural habitat: they are WILD animals! You can’t keep them in any kind of facility without (eventually) harming them!

So what if an animal has been in captivity for a long period of its life, isn’t it ‘too domesticated’ to go back to nature? For me the answer is a definite NO: even after years in captivity a wild animal will always stay wild and will remember to be wild again if you provide the right natural triggers. Even if it grew up in captivity. Take Ron for example. He was so young when he arrived to the base that he had never seen a fish swimming in the ocean. Still he knew that the ocean was his home as soon as he saw it and he knew how to catch fish as soon as he spotted the living fishes swimming in the pool. IT IS AMAZING!


Btw, do we people forget how to be a human after many years in prison? Not really. Look at Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest persons in history. He spend so many years in prison, did he fail after he was released? Absolutely not! So what makes us think that all these animals will fail? Who are we to decide for them that they can’t do it?

But what if an animal has some physical limitations? That’s not gonna stop them from being what they are. They will adapt to it, overcome it. Maya, almost totally blind, could catch fishes without a problem. Chino, with both wings half amputated, could still swim and catch fishes. Maybe they won’t become very old, but don’t they deserve a chance to try it? If you look at it like this: we don’t lock up blind people in their homes just because if they walk outside they might have a (deadly) accident. No, we give them the right tools and support them to live their life as normal as everyone else. So why don’t we do this for animals? Anyway,  I think, it’s better to have a short life that is full of what you love doing, than a long life that is full of pain and misery…


A final word on captivity. What is the beauty of an animal in captivity anyway? If you see an animal locked up in a little cage or in a little area, you don’t really see the animal. All you see is just a glimpse of what it really is, a shadow of its beauty. Why would you like to see just that? From my experiences with working with wild animals there is just one moment that beats all the other moments by far: the release. I absolutely, undeniably felt in love with penguins like Ron and sea lions like Laurita and Javier. I appreciated and enjoyed all the moments I could spend with these amazing creatures. But NOTHING can beat the moment of triumph, the feeling of pure happiness to see them going home to their friends and families! THAT is when they show their real beauty.


Please people in the north from the so-called penguin center. STOP IT! You have absolutely NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE DOING! You are murdering penguins…

Written by Anique

*Anique Hoekstra, MSc(Psyc) was Animal Welfare Supervisor & Researcher of the Animal Ethology and Cognition Research Program at the Science & Animal Welfare Department of the Organization for Research and Conservation of Aquatic Animals -ORCA- in Peru during 2012 and 2013. 

Maya’s release(s!)

As most of you probably have seen on facebook, Maya was released on the 7th of March, exactly one week after she arrived to the base. What almost nobody knows, is that this story had a little tail 2 days later… So now the whole story.


Maya arrived the 28th of February: blind, a little deaf, a concussion and totally exhausted. Two days later she was eating by herself and another 3 days later she was happily swimming in the pool eating full meals of 3 kilos in the water. Everything was going really well and she even recovered her eyesight a little bit in the left eye. The only problem for us was that Maya (because of her blindness and the days being so hot) was very active in the night as soon as she felt better. Not only active, she missed her friends in the ocean and was calling for them out loud in the middle of the night. And with loud I mean LOUD! Dinosaur sound blasts travelling all over San Bartolo… To keep San Bartolo quiet and allow the people to sleep, we had to give her company during the night, in turns. Of course we weren’t the ideal company for her, but apparently better than nothing because she always came lying down next to us.


As I said, Maya recovered very fast and one week after her arrival she was ready to go back to the ocean. We decided to release her in Isla Palomino, a sea lion rockery in front of Callao (Lima). Even though, as a subadult, she would be one of the oldest ones in the rockery (where mostly juveniles hang out), we thought that this place was the best for her because she would have plenty of other sea lions around her. 

We went with the navy’s boat. Since Maya is blind and really not aggressive, Carlos wanted to try something new for the release. Instead of blocking her with the boards and guiding her to the ‘exit’ with the boards, we blocked the exits, but we were sitting in front of the boards. So nothing between Maya and us, just let happen whatever was going to happen. Maya came out, a little dizzy from the ride. She walked towards Myriam, Sunniva and me, checking us out one by one with her whiskers, really gently. It was AMAZING! Just awesome to experience this big and strong sea lion touching you, curious because it is something new, without any signs of aggression! This really shows that these creatures are in nature not aggressive to humans, it’s the humans who are aggressive to them or harassing them. 


Not long after she decided that it was time to go, the ocean was calling! She climbed over the board, didn’t even give us time to take it away, cracked it, walked two more steps and then literally fell into freedom (because she couldn’t see the edge of the boat). She dove, stayed under water for a little while, then came up, drifted close to the boat for a couple of minutes and then disappeared. Bye Maya! Good luck! 

Well that’s what we thought…


The next day we already received a phone call from the police that Maya had been seen in Callao, eating fish from the fishermen. She swam of, but on Sunday afternoon she was back again. Come on Maya, the whole week you were calling for other sea lions and now you don’t want to be with them?! What’s wrong with you?! We had no other option. We had to pick her up and transport her to Wakama (in the middle of nowhere) to release her there. Hanging out with the fishermen is way to dangerous in Peru! 

So that’s what we did. We went to Callao and yes Maya was there, with a full belly lying on the rocks. A friendly fisherman told us that earlier that day she ate 2 full buckets of fish from one of his friends. But instead of getting angry the fisherman laughed, shrugged and went to have a beer. He swear she was applauding with her flippers and it was only because of her gentle and friendly personality that she was still alive. If she would stay there, one day she would definitely meet the wrong fishermen…

We rescued her just after sunset, put her in the kennel and drove to Wakama. By the time we got there it was midnight. Then we had to walk her for about half a kilometer to the ocean. In the beginning she was walking fine, but then she got tired and wanted to fall asleep almost every meter.


We finally reached the water 45 minutes later. Then she didn’t wanted to go. She lay down, we sat down, until a big wave came. She disappeared and we got soaked. LIBERACION!!!! Bye Maya, have a good life! Take care! And now stay there, OK! 

At least until now, this seems to be the real end of our adventures with Maya…Image 


Ron in the water

It’s the 4th of March just after 1pm, Ron’s lunch time. But today he’s not gonna eat from his plate as usual. Today is POOL time! Ron is going into the water for the first time since his rescue. We put him on an island in the middle of the pool. He doesn’t move. We splash some water on his feet and push him towards the edge. He looks at the water, but is a little scared. ‘Where did my mums put me now? This is wet, so WEIRD!’ We splash some more water and finally he goes for it. A little jump and he’s in the water. 


Yaaaay he can float and swim. He uses his left wing, less than his right wing, it’s still a little stiff and weak, but with some more pool practice that wing will be perfectly fine! You’re a good penguin Ron!


Oh Ron what are you doing? Cleaning yourself and playing around, having fun. But your fish? Pool time is EATING time you know, not just for fun!


On Sunday the 9th Ron had another big adventure. He went south to Playa Misterio. When we arrived at the beach he started running in the sand. He’s a fast runner and it seemed like he could run all the way to the ocean.



Right next to the beach people have a big pool, perfect for a diving test for Ron! He’s allowed to enter and as soon as he sees the water he jumps in. He is swimming around, diving (probably for the first time in his life!), doing his penguin stuff, everything perfectly fine! He is such a penguin! His left wing is totally healed! And from the pool he can see the ocean, it’s calling him. Soon you’re gonna go there, Ron, soon you’re going home! Just don’t be so stubborn and eat your fishes in the water… You can do it!


Chino, a broken winged penguin

On Thursday ORCA received another penguin.


This poor little guy was found in Chincha (a city south of Lima, 2 kilometers inland) in the middle of the street. How he got there and what exactly happened to him, remains a mystery. However, his wounds and his broken wings indicate that he was hold as a pet and was harnessed, either to walk him or to keep him in one place. Whatever happened, it was a torture and poor Chino totally forgot that he is a penguin and what penguins do. All he wanted to do was to get out of this horrible place and because his tied wings were keeping him away from his freedom, he decided to get rid of them. Now they’re dying off…

Important lesson: penguins are not pets! They belong in the ocean, they need the ocean and other penguins to survive! Besides this, it is illegal to keep them because it is a threatened species. 


Luckily Chino was found and picked up by his now godmother, who called us and brought him all the way to the base in San Bartolo.



Today Chino had his surgery. Unfortunately we were not able to save the lower part of his right wing, it fell off. But if we can manage to save the other wing and the remaining part of the right wing, then there is a good chance that one day he can be a happy penguin in the ocean again. So hopefully we can save it! 

For the rest he is skinny, but with his good appetite that problem will be solved pretty soon 🙂

Chino is a very sweet penguin, but severely traumatized. To become healthy again he needs to learn what it means to be a penguin. No better teacher than Ron here! Ron is younger and smaller, but he feels penguin, is feisty and very confident. Today we let these two funny little gentlemen meet. They don’t seem to really like each other, but for Chino it was a good therapeutic session. In the beginning he was really scared, but then he learnt that he can defend himself, he followed Ron and he started to do penguin stuff :). A good penguin so far!


A stranded Bryde’s whale

Yesterday 2nd March, ORCA received an alert about a stranded whale 170 km north of Lima. The people giving the alert did not know if the whale was still alive and what species it was.

As soon as we got the phone call Anique and I got all the equipment ready for a whale rescue taking everything we thought might be needed and we headed out the door. We made our way to Lima and got a ride from Ary, a local ORCA volunteer, to the site of the stranding.

When we arrived there, it was clear that the whale had been dead for some time out at sea before stranding on the beach. Most of the body was without skin and the body had started to decompose.


The whole ORCA team got to work collecting data and sample and taking measurements. The whale was a baleen whale of 13.2 meters and a female. Baleen whales are whales who have baleen (fine hair-like structures) instead of teeth and who eat organisms that are up to a few centimeters long.


Next up after measurements and sample collection was trying to determine the species. The whale was a baleen whale but that was all we knew so far. One feature to identify baleen whales are crests on the top of the whale’s head. The whale however was lying on it’s side and the belly was exposed. Ary and I got down to our hands and knees and started digging underneath the head to find the crests. After a few minutes of shoveling sand out from under the whale, I found the first crest. After another 10-15 minutes of digging, I found a second crest which was on the center of the whale’s head. The distance from one crest to the other was from the tip of my fingers to my elbow. The only species of whales to have a crest in the center of the head (three crests in total on the top of the head, one on each side and one in the center) is the Bryde’s whale.


Blood was coming out of the head and the side of the head showed signs of physical trauma. These two things gave us the cause of death, this young whale (aprox.25 years old) died from a boat striking accident. All species of baleen whales travel huge distances between their feeding grounds and their calving. With the always increasing amount of human activity and boat traffic, incidents of whales being hit and injured by boats is becoming increasingly frequent. This results in more and more whales washing up dead all over the world.

The Bryde’s whale washed up on the beach in north of Peru is one more victim on human activity. The whale was a female who had recently had a calf who most likely starved to death and has not been found yet. The stranded whale attracted a small crowd on the beach as well as reporters. This gave the ORCA team the chance to pass along the message that everything we do has an impact on the oceans and every living being in them. It is to every individual to make that impact as little as possible. Everyone can make a difference for our oceans and for the future of our planet.


(Written by Myriam V. – ORCA Intern from Belgium, summer 2014)