Conservationists at the National Sea Life Centre in Brindleyplace are celebrating the arrival of a rare Gentoo penguin chick whose parents crossed continents to conceive. The chick is the first to be born in England this year.

Mum Arabel, a 6 year-old Gentoo penguin from Canada, and dad Pablo, a 4 year-old Gentoo penguin from New Zealand, each arrived at the National Sea Life Centre in Birmingham with 5 and 10 other Gentoos in 2016 and 2014 respectively after travelling thousands of miles in a specially adapted aeroplane flight.

The pioneering penguins were two of a waddle of over 20 Gentoos from Calgary, Auckland and Billund in Denmark, who were selected to be part of a specialist conservation breeding programme.

Populations of Gentoo penguins have declined rapidly in recent years owing to the birds’ sensitive breeding nature and damage to their habitats from tourism, pollution and the illegal collection of their eggs. The species has been listed as ‘near threatened’ on the IUCN red list for many years and colonies like those at the National Sea Life Centre may one day provide a vital lifeline for the threatened species.

Hayley Roberts, penguin specialist at the National Sea Life Centre, said: “We are overjoyed at the arrival of our first ever Gentoo baby – the first this year in England. Gentoos are notoriously tricky to encourage to breed because they are such sensitive birds and we have worked tirelessly from when the breeding programme was first conceived – more than five years ago now – to make sure every detail was perfect for our penguins.

“First we had to make sure we found the right genetic matches for each bird because if the gene pool isn’t diverse enough there can be big problems. We also had to make sure their environment was as close as we could make it to most ideal conditions in the wild – we factored in temperature, lighting, colours, food, the right rocks and pebbles for use in social activities and the right amount of water for swimming.

“We then had to transport our penguins from their respective countries over thousands of miles by aeroplane and make sure they were comfortable throughout the flight – we did this by building a specially designed ‘penguin hotel’ on the plane that catered for all their needs and kept them at the right temperature.”

She added: “Our chick really is the most wanted baby we’ve ever tried to breed – we have moved mountains for its parents to conceive. We are overwhelmed with delight at its arrival.”

Despite the team’s best efforts to ensure perfect genetics, travel and home environment, there was still no guarantee the penguins would breed:

Hayley went on to say: “Gentoos are very delicate birds by nature, there was still no guarantee after all our efforts that they would mate – and even if they did, that an egg would hatch into live, healthy offspring – we held our breath for weeks until the egg hatched. There’s also no guarantee that penguin parents, especially first timers, won’t reject their offspring, so we were on high alert in case we needed to leap in and hand rear it.

“Luckily, Arabel and Pablo have taken to parenthood like penguins to water and are doing a fantastic job keeping their chick protected, warm and fed. It won’t be long now before the chick will take to the water itself, our penguin settlement has truly been christened!”

While the Sea Life staff won’t be able to sex the baby until it is at least 4 months old, the team hopes it will be boy to contribute to male numbers in the colony and take part in a second generation breeding programme when it reaches full maturity.

Hayley said: “We currently have 10 male and 14 female penguins in our colony, so it would be great if the chick turned out to be a boy and was able to pair with one of our girls when it is old enough – penguins mate for life and it would be lovely to see it happily settled and maybe even have chicks of its own one day.”

For further information about the National Sea Life Centre’s ‘Breed, Rescue, Protect’ conservation programme or to book tickets to see the baby chick, which can be seen in the penguin area, please visit: www.sealife.co.uk/birmingham