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Pet a penguin at Atlantis Marine World

Joe Yaiullo, right, holds fish to be fed

Joe Yaiullo, right, holds fish to be fed to a penguin at Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead. (July 5, 2010) Photo Credit: Ed Betz

Pam toddles over to Kevin and pecks him. She's jealous of the attention her 2-month-old baby brother is getting. Pam gets a time out for her juvenile behavior, and is deposited in a separate playpen by herself.

Welcome to the world of baby penguins. While Pam and Kevin are still technically considered "chicks" and were born the size of a man's palm, they're now old enough to waddle on their own and be part of a new interactive experience at the Atlantis Aquarium in Riverhead, called "Penguin Encounter."

Visitors who pay $50 each can spend 45 minutes with the newest penguins. The aquatic birds peck on children's sandals and shoelaces, nip at Mom's shorts, and let visitors pet their soft feathers. "It feels like a cat," says Erin Marsh of Rhode Island, who is visiting the aquarium with her daughter, McKenzie, 14, and McKenzie's friend Jillian, 13. "A stuffed animal," is McKenzie's assessment.

Atlantis has had South African penguins as part of the aquarium for quite some time, but this year marks the aquarium's first live penguin birth. About six months ago, Pam was born. And two months ago, she was joined by siblings Kevin and Angela, whose eggs hatched several days apart.

Visitors will learn these fun facts about penguins: Curators need to test a penguin's blood to determine its sex; there's no visible way to tell boy from girl. Penguins usually lay two eggs at a time, and it takes each egg 38 to 42 days to hatch. The South African penguins actually get cold during the Long Island winter and have hutches they can escape into to warm up.

The older generation of penguins at Atlantis is named after "Seinfeld" characters - George, for instance, is a sloppy eater and will eat fish from the floor. This new generation is named after characters from "The Office."

Kevin is lovable and mushy, says Joseph Yaiullo, curator and co-founder of the aquarium. Pam is sweet but with an edge to her. Angela is nervous and nippy.

Michael Anderson, 10, spends several minutes petting Kevin, while Kevin squeals and pecks at the bottom of Michael's shorts. "They were much more playful than I expected," Michael says.

"I want one," Jillian says. "I was actually thinking in my head if you could have a penguin as a pet."

Penguin EncounterAtlantis Marine World, 431 E. Main St., Riverhead, 631-208-9200, ext. 426, atlantismarineworld.com

Hours: Daily at 11 a.m., 1:30 and 3:30 p.m.

Price: $50 a person

And try 'Aquarium Idol'

The Penguin Encounter isn't the only new entertainment at Atlantis this year. "Aquarium Idol" pits a sea lion contestant against an aquarium staff member dressed as Sue Perstar (Get it? Say the name fast: Superstar). At the end of the 15-minute show, the audience votes by applause for the better song-and-dance performance.

Hours: Daily at 10:45 a.m. and 12:45, 2:30 and 4 p.m.

Price: Included in aquarium admission of $21.50 for adults; $18.50 for children ages 3 to 17 and seniors ages 62 and older. Children younger than 3 are free. (Atlantis is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. In honor of that, if you visit the aquarium during your birthday week now through June 14, 2011, you get in free.)

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