October 8th is African Penguin AwarenessDay. To celebrate this day I want to share a feature in an African penguin exhibit that brings visitors and penguins closer together: a unique 360 degree all-acrylic crawl-through viewing cylinder. You can experience this crawl-through cylinder at the recently opened Penguin Playhouse at Ripley's Aquariumof the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
wild-design was part of the design team with the architecture firm HHCP andRipley's Entertainmentin-house designers.
That modesty disclaimer out of the way: the tunnel is awesome! It's a one of a kind feature that offers lots of funforkids (and adults - if they dare). Check it out yourself, or let me show it to you here.
Two penguins swimming over the all acrylic cylinder
This crawl-through cylinder is unique because there is no flat horizontal glass floor in the round tube. Usually walk-through or crawl-through cylinders have a flat floor. This absence of glass - and any other support structure - creates amazing transparency, as you can see on the photos. Only diving gets you closer to the animals.
Below is a photo looking back to the entry. I picked a couple photos without visitors to show you how transparent the tunnel is.
The acrylic floor feels softer andwarmer than glass, which makes it better for crawling on, and because the floor is chemically bonded it doesn't have any joints i.e. there's no silicon edge along the glass seam. It is completely smooth and allows you to slouch down the wall towards the floor.
Kids slouching in tunnel
A few other details make this tunnel unique, but before I get to them, let me show you how this cylinder fits into thevisitors' path through the exhibit.
If you follow the main visitor route, indicated by the orange arrow, you first encounter a large viewing panel, curved at one end and crowned by three large monitors at the other. Once you turn the corner to continue through the penguin exhibit, you can branch off into the crawl-through cylinder; marked here by a small red arrow.
I took this short clip from the main window. First you see the above water view into the exhibit then the camera dips down below the water level pointing towards the crawl-through cylinder.
Here the underwater view as a photo:
The bright reflection on the cylinder is not visible from inside it
Most adults won't see the cylinder from here because their eye level is too far above water level, while kids eyes are usually right around the water's surface. The path slopes slightly down to increase the water depth and allows adults a better view into the pool.
When they turn the corner visitors can leave the main visitor path and enter into the crawl-through cylinder thereby entering a secondary path. Mostly children do it; and this is where they can explore, have an adventure on their own, but still interact with the adults on the main path.
The interaction between the child and adult happens when a kid pops up in the vertical cylinder at the end of the crawl-through cylinder and, of course, they get a great close up view of penguins.
Children popping up in the middle of the exhibit next to penguins
Parents taking photos of their kids in the pop-up cylinder (orange arrow)
From a different angle during a keeper talk
From the pop-up cylinder the kids continue through another underwater viewing tunnel.
Children crawling along another penguin viewing tunnel
Kids looking at penguins above them
This second crawl-through tunnel is a candy-cane shaped acrylic panel that offers a 90-degree view to the pool. It is located on the penguin's fastest route between their nesting ground and the pool, thereforesightings of overhead penguin crossings are common. Here you can see what the children above are looking at:
The bird above is ready to hop out and is standing in about 2.5 inches (6cm) of water.
When thewave machine is off, as during the keeper talk, the water is so calm that you can watch the talk from underneath the water.
Children watching the keeper talk from underwater
Penguins standing on acrylic panel
The children's path ends here and merges with the main path.
I will continue this narrative and why this tunnel is unique with more details in a follow-up post.
Meanwhile, and in celebration of African Penguin Awareness Day, I'd like to promote a couple of links that fit the occasion.
At the WAZA website (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums) you can find out what zoos and aquariums are doing to help African Penguins.
In South Africa, the penguin's native habitat, SANCOOB is helping these birds with a multitude of projects in close coordination with zoos and aquariums around the world. SANCOOB stands for Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds.
The life-story of Mrs. Althea Louise Burman Westphal, co-founder of SANCCOB, makes a great read.