IT CAN BE 98 DEGREES OUTSIDE AND SWELTERING, but Antonio Fernandez is wearing warm suspenders, a thick jacket, rubber boots and gloves. He arrives at work at 5:30 a.m. each day, where it’s chilly 31 degrees, and his job is to shovel snow – in Orlando.
For Fernandez, a senior aviculturist at SeaWorld, visiting and caring for nearly 250 penguins in one of the favorite parts of his day.
His work as a penguin keeper includes feeding the penguins and monitoring their activities. And he’s popular – when he’s in their enclosure, many of the penguins make a beeline for him, pecking at his pants to try to get his attention.
Fernandez can instantly tell one penguin from another just by observing their mannerisms; some are very social, some keep to themselves. He knows the birds by name – he pets Lisa, 24, and calls over to Fisher, 13. One of his penguins recently returned after undergoing cataract surgery.
Fernandez has a close relationship with several of the penguins, especially the ones that he hand-raised, like siblings Sweeney and Todd. When parent birds can’t take care of their chicks, Fernandez and fellow trainers feed them, even taking them home at night in an incubator if necessary.
“One of the things that fascinates me most about penguins is the way they depend upon one another like a family,” says Fernandez, who studied biology at the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico.
He’s always had a passion for animals and started working professionally with birds in 1996. Early in his career, he worked at the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center in his hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico, and oversaw an aviary.
He joined SeaWorld Orlando in June 1999 and has been working with the penguins for the last seven years.
“I wanted to turn my passion for birds into a career,” Fernandez says. “My career at SeaWorld Orlando has allowed me to learn firsthand about different species of birds that, even with different adaptations, turn out to be the same feathered, egg-laying, warm-blooded animal.”
And SeaWorld has plans to show off Fernandez’s beloved penguin. In 2013, the park plans to open a new attraction, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. Guests will be transported into the icy world of the penguin on a family adventure ride that will also feature up-close observation of the penguin colony, including the Gentoos, Rockhoppers, Adelies and Kings.