From Dora’s vendetta against Tall Matt to Mr Mac stealing his blind girlfriend’s fish, there’s never a dull moment at Penguin Cove. Alex Casey speaks to the humans behind New Zealand’s most surprising online gossip page.
For over a decade, Penguin Cove in the National Aquarium of New Zealand has been home to more twists, backstabbing and heartbreak than a Love Island producer could ever dream of. There’s the tense love triangle that saw “blokey” Eric face off against “lovely” Squishy for the affection of “bombshell” Pipi. There’s crowd favourites Captain and Flip, him missing an eye and her missing a flipper. There’s the explosive fight between same-sex couple Dave and Kaewa, which saw Dave booted out of their burrow and banished to the “holiday home” for weeks.
And, just like Love Island, millions of fans from all around the world tune in for their regular dose of poolside drama and accompanying memes. The National Aquarium has been sharing the highs and lows from the cove on their Facebook page for years, launching with a bang in July 2017 with their now-iconic “Naughty” and “Good” penguin of the month. “Naughty Penguin: Timmy. Stole fish from another penguin and pushed another penguin over,” the first post reads. “Good Penguin: Betty. Good swimmer and waits patiently for her fish.”
Felicity Kibble, marketing advisor for the National Aquarium, remembers being at her computer for that very first post. “One minute it had a great reach of over 20,000 people, then the number of comments and people reached just kept climbing and climbing,” she recalls. Within hours, the post had reached two million people, and comments were flooding in from around the world. “Timmy was framed!” wrote Shannon from Missouri, accompanied by a FREE TIMMY placard. “Good on ya Betty,” wrote Sini from Brighton. “Keep up the good work luv”.
Kibble began fielding calls from media outlets in the UK, Australia and the United States and the penguin drama quickly made the homepages of Buzzfeed, Bustle and Bored Panda. “It was amazing that a simple image of a sign at the aquarium could generate so much interest,” she says. “From there, we made sure we kept posting each month.” Highlights from the early days include Tux (Naughty, Feb 2018), who “pushed Timmy off the pier after it took him an hour to walk there” and resident bad boy Mo (Naughty, May 2018) “for being downright obnoxious.”
Since then, the appetite for penguin gossip has only become more voracious. The introduction of the Penguin of the Year competition in 2018 saw people around the world voting for their favourite nominee. Danielle Berryman, who was living in Cyprus at the time and had never visited New Zealand let alone Napier, felt a strong affinity with Mo. “He was quite often in the bad books, and a friend made a joke that he was a bit like me,” she says. “It became a running joke that Mo was my spirit animal and I really started to look forward to his antics.”
She took her dedication a step further when the competition was introduced, and told friends she would get a tattoo of naughty Mo if he was ever triumphant. For three years Mo fans campaigned hard to no avail, until he took out the top spot in 2021. “Loved for his mischievous antics, Mo’s group of passionate followers campaigned hard and after three years as a finalist he finally has his flippers on the trophy for Penguin of the Year,” the judges wrote on Facebook. Berryman in Cyprus kept to her word, getting a large full colour tattoo of Mo on her ankle.
These days, the penguins can be found waddling on TikTok and the Facebook page has done away with the “Naughty” and “Good” monthly awards for a less didactic Penguin of the Month prize. “We thought we could let the people decide whether they think the behaviour is good or naughty,” says Rebekah Cuthbert, birds supervisor at the National Aquarium and key informant when it comes to penguin drama. “You know, is Burny a naughty penguin for abandoning her boyfriend to go and hang out with the other girls? Or is she a good penguin showing woman power? We’re not here to judge.”
Not only has the online buzz brought with it a frenzy of global attention, it has also provided an opportunity to raise awareness about how these kororā (little penguins) ended up in the cove. The rehabilitation space opened in 2012 after the closure of a nearby facility saw a colony of rescue penguins without homes. Three of those original cast members – Betty (“barged in front of the other penguins during feeding times”), Draco (“tricked the new keepers into feeding her twice”) and Mr Mac (“stole his girlfriend’s fish even though she is blind”) – remain there today.
“You get to know them about the same as you know your own pets,” says Cuthbert, who has worked at the cove since it first opened over a decade ago. “There are very, very different personalities across the whole colony.” If she was to cast them as reality television archetypes, it wouldn’t take long to tick all the boxes. “Mo is the bad boy because he mugs people for fish,” she says. “But Martin is the real villain – he creeps around in the bushes and waits for unsuspecting penguins to walk past and then ambushes them on the way to the feeding station.”
Pipi is the bombshell of the cove “because she’s playing the two boys off against each other” and Eric is the comic relief. “He’s a real clown, he will climb up onto the jetty and push off the other penguins just for fun.” Captain and Flip are the golden couple – the Tommy and Molly, the Art and Matilda, the Angel and Brett. “They are just really solid, good parents, they build a nice nest, they are always together. Real role model penguins,” says Cuthbert. Mr Mac and Draco are the drop kicks. “They don’t like to go swimming and prefer to sit at home being lazy.”
As for the lonely heart, the outcast, the black sheep, Cuthbert says her all-time favourite penguin Dora fits the brief perfectly. “She did it to herself,” she laughs. “She basically decided she was better than everyone and she didn’t really want to associate much with the other penguins.” Dave tried to court Dora for a whole breeding season, but Cuthbert says she wasn’t interested. “She really, really didn’t like him. He’d go and visit her in her house and she’d immediately go into another burrow – she wouldn’t even be in the same room as him.”
Perhaps it was her misandrist side – she won Naughty Penguin in November 2017 for “attacking our male keepers; specifically, Tall Matt” and maintained her streak until March 2022, when she won again for “a continued vendetta against the male keepers.” Cuthbert says this sort of political action was typical. “We have a keeper that will stand up on a little platform jetty while we’re talking to the people about the penguins and Dora would often go and stand next to them,” she explains. “If she didn’t like them, she would peck them in the ankles.”
Sadly, Dora died last month at the age of nine after a long battle with spinal problems. “That’s a pretty tough one for me because we raised her from five days old,” says Cuthbert. “It’s funny because all the penguins are your favourites at different times, like Mo is funny when he kicks sand in people’s faces, but out of all the years and out of all the penguins, Dora was my favourite”. Saying goodbye, she says, was one of the hardest days she’s ever had at work. “Normally I’m pretty good because it is part of the job. But, I guess… I just really loved her.”
In sharing all the highs and lows of Penguin Cove and the personalities within, Cuthbert’s hope is that they can keep raising awareness about how people can help them. Although not as steeply as the hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin, the kororā population continues to be in decline in Aotearoa. Every penguin in the cove has been rescued and almost all have sustained preventable injuries – Flip lost her flipper after getting tangled in fishing line, Lulu has brain damage after being hit on the head at sea and several have been attacked by cats and dogs.
There are two main messages Cuthbert wants people to come away with after getting to know these little penguins a bit better. “If you see any rubbish on the beach, pick it up and put it in the bin,” she says. “That’s how Flip lost her flipper.” The second message is that people keep their dogs on a lead at the beach to prevent them causing harm to any vulnerable nesting birds in the area. “To a dog, the penguin smells like a nugget and makes a great squeaky sound like the toy at home, so why wouldn’t they want to play with it?” she says.
As for any upcoming storylines in Penguin Cove, moulting time will soon see the penguins fatten up to go into hibernation until they lose all their old feathers. “They put on about 60% of their body weight and they just look hilarious,” explains Cuthbert. “They’re about the size of a soccer ball, while also looking like a half plucked chicken. Some go half bald with a mohawk and some have a ring of feathers around their neck like a boa.” The current plan is to share some of the before snaps online before they emerge “beautiful and shiny with their new summer bodies.”
Glow ups and bust-ups, heartbreak and tears – it’s all part of life at the cove. Cuthbert says they’ve been asked multiple times over the years whether they would consider a Meerkat Manor-style reality series documenting the drama, but the answer has always been the same. “Frankly, there’s a limited amount of things that penguins do,” she says. “It would also take a great deal of my day away and I wouldn’t have time to do all the other chores that are required.” In yet another parallel with Love Island, their dwelling also stinks if left unattended for too long.
“It’s not a glamorous job, that’s for sure,” laughs Cuthbert. “They are very dirty and very smelly by the end of the day, but it’s still all worth it.”