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Jackass penguins take centre stage at Vancouver Aquarium

Endangered African penguins gather near the water at Penguin Point at the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, May 17, 2012.

Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

Six African penguins have arrived in Stanley Park just in time to spend their May long weekend swimming, eating oily fish, and preening in the sun, as the Vancouver Aquarium's first ever penguin exhibit opens Friday.

The birds moved into Penguin Point, a new specially-designed exhibit on Monday, following their arrival – on loan – from the New England Aquarium in Boston. Their new home features a stony beach and cliffside, inspired by Boulder Beach in Cape Town, South Africa, their natural habitat. The four females and two males range in age from just under two, to 15 years old.

Although this is the first time that the aquarium has hosted the popular flightless bird, Dr. John Nightingale, president and CEO of the aquarium, said that many visitors remember the penguins at the Stanley Park Zoo. That exhibit operated until the zoo closed in 1996.

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"It was one of the questions – weekly – you would hear for the last 15 years," said Dr. Nightingale. "'When are the penguins coming back? When are the penguins coming back?' And so finally, the penguins came back."

The African penguin is an endangered species. Since the early 1900s, 90 per cent of the population has disappeared, said Lauren Hartling, from the aquarium's marine mammal department.

The species is native to the southwestern coast of Africa, and they're also known as Black-Footed penguins, and – affectionately, said Ms. Hartling – as Jackass penguins, due to the loud and distinctive braying noise they make.

Brian Sheehan, the aquarium's marine mammal curator, said that although he and his staff are still getting to know the new arrivals, each of the six already display "distinct characteristics and personalities that are really interesting to watch."

The aquarium is holding a contest to name their newest arrivals, asking the public to submit suggestions to name them after B.C. cities, towns and neighbourhoods.

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