Monday, July 28, 2014

March of the Penguins at the San Francisco Zoo

     Every year, Bay Area residents and visitors get the opportunity to see Magellanic penguins up close at the San Francisco Zoo's March of the Penguins. The zoo calls the event a "graduation" march for their penguin chicks that have grown old enough to live with the penguin adults at the zoo's Penguin Island enclosure ( Said graduates waddle adorably and sometimes warily to their new home through a tunnel of delighted visitors.
     This year's March took place on Saturday, July 26th. I had many reservations about attending. For one, the Giants were playing the Dodgers at AT&T Park all weekend, and I was afraid of the traffic jam in and out of San Francisco. Second, July is tourist season, and the perpetual crowd can make traveling in the city frustrating and can dim some of the enjoyment of popular tourist attractions. Finally, the price of zoo tickets is steep, and I didn't know what to expect or if the investment would be worth it.
     My reservations were not resolved when my sister and I arrived at the zoo. We discovered that zoo members were allowed to go in at 9:30am. The gates of the zoo didn't open until 10am, and the penguin march was slated to take place at 10:15. As the line of members grew longer and longer, and we waited in the line for regular tickets, we wondered if we would be able to get our tickets and get to the penguin enclosure before the event started. As the end of the line of members disappeared around the corner and continued to grow, we wondered if we would even be able to see the penguins through the crowds of people. When the gates opened for zoo members, they poured in, and we never did see the end of the line. There seemed to be just as many people with regular tickets trying to get in.
     Despite my reservations and doubts, we did get to the event in plenty of time and got an excellent spot. After seeing the three male chicks and one female chick waddling around the corner of the enclosure and right past our feet, I can tell you the wait, the crowds, and the price of the ticket (for an adult, $17) were worth it. The chicks paused when they were directly in front of us. We watched as their keeper reassured them and rubbed one chick's tummy to build his confidence. The chicks then waddled past, delighting the children seated in front. Once they were inside their enclosure, they zipped happily through the water with the adults, putting on another show for visitors. We left happy and grateful we'd braved the crowds to see the graduates.
     If you're a penguin fan, this is definitely a miss-me-not event, and here are my tips to make it a more pleasant experience. First, arrive early. The zoo offers parking, but if you're not a member, you have to pay $10 to park. I suggest parking for free at one of the many Ocean Beach lots within easy walking distance of the zoo. This allows you to enjoy the beach after the zoo and escape the crowds leaving the event. If you live outside the city, public transportation to the zoo can take a long, long time, so be prepared.
     Second, plan your ticket choice. Zoo memberships aren't cheap, but they do allow you to get in early to events and have many other perks that are valuable for Bay Area residents (especially those with kids). If you want to have one less thing to worry about, I recommend the zoo membership so you can get in line and get in early. However, I bought tickets when I arrived and still made it to the event with plenty of time to spare. I even got a front-row spot. Don't let the crowds intimidate you. I had never seen so many people at the zoo for an event, and I was still able to see and enjoy the March.
     Third, get in the right mindset. Expect a lot of tourists and people at this kind of event. If you don't like crowds, take that into consideration before attending. I personally don't like crowds, but I have to say, the people at the event were very friendly and polite. I had a wonderful conversation with the family in front of us in line as well as visitors throughout the zoo. People-watching can be just as enjoyable as animal-watching.
     Don't forget to get the most out of your zoo ticket by visiting the special exhibits the zoo hosts. When we went, the zoo was hosting the Washed Ashore exhibit, an art show of marine sculptures made from plastic and other human refuse dumped in the sea. Learn more about this awesome exhibit, its creators, and the non-profit organization Washed Ashore at
     Finally, if you want to save money, take a lunch to the zoo. The prices of the zoo's cafĂ© aren't actually that bad, but when you can take your own lunch and snacks, why not take advantage of it? If you're not so concerned about a budget, there are plenty of souvenirs to buy, and you can pay with cash or credit (even at the small booths right next to the event).
    Below are pictures from the event as well as an adorable penguin shirt my sister just couldn't resist. Waddle on, my friends.