CHICAGO – On the first weekend after Chicago's Shedd Aquarium was forced to close by the new coronavirus that was endangering the country, the penguin handlers had an idea.
Taking advantage of the building’s quiet halls, the empty spaces where normally tourists would congregate in front of fish displays, they brought the rockhopper penguin Wellington to the Amazon Rising exhibit, full of South American aquatic life.
Wellington looked up. He looked left, then right, and then back at handler Michelle Natasowski, who was recording the scene on her phone. Then he walked over to one of the big tanks in front of him and seemed especially taken by the red-bellied piranhas and black-barred silver dollars passing by.
In those 27 seconds, a star was born.
That short, simple Wellington video has been the greatest viral sensation Shedd has had, more so even than the 2014-15 buzz over the rescued baby sea otter Luna. As of this writing Twitter users have watched the video more than 3.7 million times.
In that and the subsequent series known as “Penguin Field Trips,” he and his fellow Shedd rockhopper and Magellanic penguins kept homebound humans entertained throughout this pandemic year merely by displaying their natural curiosity in settings ranging from Shedd exhibits to other museums to Chicago’s Soldier Field.
And as 2020 draws to a close Wellington becomes the first flightless bird — although surely not the first habitual tuxedo wearer — to be named a Tribune Chicagoan of the Year in the arts, for the museums category.
“Can we please get more of this?” said one of the first comments in response to that initial Penguin Field Trip video. “Please I need a longer version,” said another.
During a year when it will have been closed almost as many days as it’s been open, the aquarium has seen its social media engagement skyrocket. Twitter and Instagram followers more than doubled, to 156,000 and 296,000, respectively. Facebook audience grew 30 percent, and the Penguin Field Trip phenomenon has been global: The aquarium has heard from fans on all seven continents, it says, even Antarctica.
Another side effect of the Wellington-as-influencer phenomenon: Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease specialist, was wearing a Shedd penguin face mask as he took his fall flu shot to model the wisdom of the behavior. And a Shedd plush rockhopper — also gifted to Fauci after Shedd CEO Bridget Coughlin interviewed him for an Economic Club of Chicago speaking engagement — has been spotted on one of his office shelves during interviews.