Photography by Jennie Miller unless noted

Fresh from cataract removal surgery, Tom regained his sight and found a girlfriend, Natasha, in the Detroit Zoo’s new $30-million, state-of-the-art Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

The pair of rockhopper penguins are among 83 residents adapting well—even better than expected, zoo curators say—to their fancy new digs, which opened in April. The deep-water habitat, financed in part by a $10-million gift to the zoo, is the latest crowd-pleasing addition to a beloved Detroit institution that has long ranked among the city’s top visitor attractions.

Billed as the world’s largest penguinarium, the Polk center comes complete with real falling snow, layers of ice, lapping waves, climbable rocks and other South Pole-simulating elements. It’s all custom-designed to make Tom and Natasha, Bubbles, Simon, Finn, Pickles, Popeye and their pals feel more at home than was possible in the zoo’s original penguin facility, which was groundbreaking in its own right when it opened in 1968.

“The environment is almost identical to what it’s really like in nature, with the notable exception that they don’t have to worry about predators,” boasts Detroit Zoo Director Ron Kagan. He studied penguins on several visits to Antarctica with teams of animal specialists, exhibit designers and architects while planning the 33,000-square-foot facility.

The naturalistic habitat facilitates penguin-in-the-wild behavior, from swimming, diving and porpoising—leaping out of the chilled 40-degree water—to nesting and rearing young amid the rock ledges and ice shelves. According to Kagan, the latter two behaviors required curator assistance in the zoo’s old facility. The 326,000-gallon swimming pool contains 10 times more water than their former home, and allows the penguins to dive as deep as 25 feet below the surface, he says. “You can see penguins in a way you can’t even see them in the wild.”

Outside, the stark white building is a striking addition to the Detroit Zoo landscape. Located near the park’s main entrance, it’s shaped like a flat-topped iceberg with a 25-foot waterfall that cascades, like melting ice, from the roof. The design includes a crevasse meant to evoke an iceberg on the verge of breaking apart. With a fountain and kid-friendly water jets for warm weather splashing, the surrounding plaza will be converted to an ice skating rink in winter.

Upon entering the center, visitors get their first glimpse of the zoo’s four penguin species—king, rockhopper, macaroni and the fast-swimming gentoo—in an icy, Antarctic tableaux with soaring ceilings and natural light. “It feels like you can just walk in and join the penguins,” observes Scott Carter, the zoo’s chief life sciences officer, as he peers through the huge windows separating visitors and penguins. “They’re so much fun to watch!”

But, as Carter says, “the biggest wows” are reserved for the lower level where an underwater viewing gallery and giant, walk-through acrylic tunnels put visitors practically nose-to-beak with the aquatic birds as they zoom overhead, underfoot and alongside.

To get there, visitors descend a walkway to a replica of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1914 polar expedition vessel, Endurance. On deck, as the ship negotiates the stormy Drake Passage, they experience video-enhanced blasts of cold air, “sea mist,” calving icebergs and crashing waves so realistic that some queasy visitors wonder aloud where they can get Dramamine. Indeed, the zoo’s website contains this warning: “Exercise caution if you are subject to motion sickness or if you have a heart condition or other serious health problems.”

Throughout the Polk center, interactive exhibits reveal everything from how to tell penguin species apart (macaroni penguins, for example, have a spiky crest of yellow feathers, unibrow-style) to global climate change issues and conservation efforts.

And for those smitten with the charismatic birds, the Drake Passage Gift Shop offers a potpourri of penguin paraphernalia, from penguin-shaped pasta, chess pieces and puppets to tiles, tee shirts and tote bags.


Detroit Zoo:, (248) 541-5717 From aardvarks to zebras, the Detroit Zoo is home to 2,400 animals in naturalistic habitats spread across 125 landscaped acres. The zoo, which opened in 1928, is located just north of Detroit in Royal Oak. The zoo’s numerous award-winning attractions include the National Amphibian Conservation Center, Great Apes of Harambee and the Arctic Ring of Life polar bear habitat.

Timed-entry tickets to the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center are included with Detroit Zoo admission. Once inside the center, there is no time restriction for the visit. Check penguins. for details.

You can watch the penguins in real time via the zoo’s penguin cam from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily at



While the Detroit Zoo is the biggest and best known, Michigan also is home to a handful of smaller accredited zoos. Here’s a look at three of them:

Battle Creek: Feeding giraffes is a visitor highlight at Binder Park Zoo, which sprawls across 433 acres of natural forests and wetlands. Open through Oct. 9 this year, it showcases 600 animals of 140 species and puts strong emphasis on conservation education.

The main attraction is Wild Africa, a 50-acre safari-like experience. To get there visitors board zebra striped, open air trams for a 15-minute ride through steep, wooded terrain. Construction is under way on a new African lion exhibit, due to open in 2017. Modeled after the African plain, it will be a grassy meadow with a water hole. A rock formation will provide shelter and a place for the lions to bask in the sun. Visitors will peer through a glass wall from a close-up viewing area designed to resemble an African home. An African Painted Dog exhibit is being built in the same area.

Grand Rapids: The John Ball Zoo, with nearly 2,000 animals from five continents, is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Open through Nov. 13, the nation’s 10th oldest zoo is known for interactive exhibits including the Budgie Aviary, in which visitors walk through with handheld feed-sticks for the Australian birds. Kids also love the daily feeding sessions for penguins, pelicans and chimps.

Other attractions are a zip line, ropes course and a funicular tram that whisks visitors to the highest point of the zoo for sweeping views. New additions include a tiger exhibit and a handicap accessible Waterfall Trail.

Lansing: Potter Park Zoo in the state’s capital city is set on the Red Cedar River and connected to the Lansing River Trail. The 58-acre zoo showcases 500 animals of 160 species, including peacocks, snow leopards, a black rhino, gray wolves, lions, tigers, monkeys, meerkats, African tortoises, Arctic foxes and bald eagles.

A new, state-of-the-art moose exhibit features a pond and browsing trees for a pair of Alaskan moose, Willow and Meeko, who were rescued a few years ago after getting separated from their mothers. Favorite attractions, in addition to the new bungee jump, include pony and camel rides, the Bird and Reptile House and Wings from Down Under, with 200 Grass Parakeets and Cockatiels in free flight.

The zoo, doable in a few hours, is open 364 days a year with sharply discounted rates November through March.

This article originally appeared in the 2016 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.


Susan R. Pollack is an award-winning travel writer in suburban Detroit.