Designing a Penguin Wetsuit

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A "penguin suit" doesn't just refer to a tuxedo anymore.

Why does Pierre, the Academy's 25-year-old penguin
need a wetsuit?
Thanks to an innovative treatment at the California Academy of Sciences. Pierre, the Academy's 25-year-old penguin was recently fitted with a wetsuit! Pierre's feathers were thinning and not growing back. Because penguins rely on their feathers for warmth, Pierre was often shivering and uncomfortable without the protection of his feathers. When medical tests concluded there was no medical reason for the feather loss and more conventional treatments proved unsuccessful, senior aquatic biologist & penguin handler, Pam Schaller came up with a more creative approach to keep Pierre warm.

Pam was very familiar with the warmth of wetsuits. She then mused why couldn't a wetsuit be designed for a penguin? She approached Academy veterinarian, Freeland Dunker with her left field idea. At first, he was dubious but after talking with Pam, he agreed it was worth a try as long as the wetsuit was fitted to insure it did more good than harm. In other words, as long as the wetsuit was fitted not to impede movement or cause rashes, it was worth a shot. Pam knew the best person to design a custom wetsuit would be Celeste Argel, the Early Childhood Specialist at the Academy, who is an excellent and creative seamstress. Celeste was asked to collaborate with Pam to develop and fit a wetsuit just Pierre's size.

But how do you go about designing a penguin wetsuit? The answer seems to be trial and error. Celeste sat down with me and went over the details about the unusual experience. The process from idea to creation required a great deal of patience and re-fitting.

Celeste, Pam and Pierre met several times in order to customize dimensions. The first fitting consisted of Pam restraining Pierre in order for Celeste to take measurements. From the start, Celeste marveled at the strength of Pierre. "From far away," she commented, "penguins just look so cute and cuddly but being up close gave me an appreciation for just how strong penguins really are." With measurements in hand, Celeste drafted up a pattern for the wetsuit and created the first prototype from white cotton bed linens.


On the second fitting, Celeste was faced with a new challenge - getting Pierre's flippers through the armhole. Pam wanted to keep the armholes as small as possible to maximize warmth. In doing so, Pierre's flippers had to be bent at the joint and folded in upon themselves in order to thread them though the armholes. While Pam again restrained Pierre, Celeste applied pressure at the joint to fold his wings. "It was amazing and scary to fold up Pierre's flipper. I wanted to make sure I wasn't hurting him but to fold his flipper required a bit of pressure at the joint," Celeste related. With the prototype on, Celeste was able to use a marker and note where the suit had to be taken in or taken out to make Pierre more comfortable. And then again, it was back to the drawing board.

A few more fittings took place to streamline the suit and to ensure that Pierre's flippers had full mobility. Then Velcro was added to the back of the suit. Pierre was let loose in the penguin enclosure to see how he moved. Both Celeste and Pam sat down to watch his movements and observed where the fabric was bunching. Pierre seemed to be adjusting to his suit quite well but the other penguins, new to a mostly white Pierre, started poking and prodding to investigate the newly adorned bird. Because of the interest from the other birds, the session in the suit only lasted a few minutes. Celeste changed the color of the prototype to a dark brown to see if the other penguins would respond differently and they did. They accepted Pierre with a dark physique. More sessions in the new prototype followed and when Pierre jumped into the water and swam around with the suit on, Celeste and Pam knew it was time for the neoprene fitting.

Celeste conducted research to see how neoprene would act differently than cotton. From her research, she concluded that the whole suit would have to be taken in at least an inch because of the give of the material. However, Celeste didn't have a machine to sew neoprene effectively so Pam asked Oceanic Worldwide, who supplied wetsuits to the human staff at the Academy, to manufacture a neoprene suit. Pam delivered the working prototype and the patterns to Oceanic who agreed to donate their time and materials. "We were really excited to do it," said Teo Tertel, company marketing specialist. "We heard most of these penguins only live to 20, and our little buddy there was already 25. Anything we could do to help them, we were all for it."

When the suit from Worldwide was delivered, it still wasn't quite ready. The neoprene suit fit differently than expected and had to be re-fitted all over again. However neoprene can be glued instead of sewn so it was a matter of trying the suit on Pierre, marking where it didn't fit snugly and adjusting. "I would walk behind him and look at where there were any gaps, and cut and refit and cut and refit until it looked like it was extremely streamlined," Pam remarked on the final alterations. There were hiccups with a penguin being in a wetsuit for the first time and being curious about the Velcro and tabs. So nothing was left unaltered for Pierre's comfort and mobility.

With all the alterations finally done, a final set of patterns was delivered to Oceanic Worldwide and they again donated their time to manufacture the final wetsuit for Pierre. All the hard work paid off for all involved when Pierre became warm again. It was a huge bonus when he also started to gain weight and his feathers began to grow back. The goal of designing the wetsuit for Pierre was to keep him comfortable and warm and the custom suit worked much better than expected. Having Pierre happy and healthy without the further need of the wetsuit was a perfect outcome for a very unusual treatment.

Cat Aboudara is the Special Projects Manager at California Academy of Sciences and works in the public programs division. The Academy is a wonderful fit for her because of her curiosity about the natural world and her experience in working with native California wildlife.


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