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Penguins’ spin cycle making a splash

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SAN FRANCISCO — This is a place with a weakness for social trends. So it's probably not surprising that the week's most riveting celebrities are 52 Magellanic penguins at the San Francisco Zoo that have spent the past 3 1/2 weeks swimming round and round a shallow pool in a mysterious marathon.

The nonstop swimming began when six new Magellanic penguins arrived at the zoo on Dec. 24. They had spent years at an Ohio theme park and the last year at Sea World in San Diego. Within two hours of arriving, they were in the pool, showing off an obvious swimming prowess, and the zoo's 46 other Magellanics joined in the circular swimming.

"Color me surprised," said Jane Tollini, the zoo's penguin keeper. "I can't explain it. They've swum more in the last three weeks than they have in the last five years."

In the wild, the penguins swim by the millions for thousands of miles off the South American coast. The zoo's 46 resident penguins, who had spent most of their time enjoying sedentary lives of grooming and staying in their burrows, began to simulate that migratory behavior when they saw the new penguins at it. They plunged into the 130-by-40-foot pool, and have hardly emerged since Christmas, staggering out to their artificial island only at night.

Some have suggested that Tollini, who was wearing rubber boots and pelican earrings, simply extricate the six new penguins. Her reply seemed typically San Franciscan: "Why stress them out?"

Even a lack of water has not keep the penguins from the pool. When the zoo drained it for cleaning, the penguins jumped in anyway and walked around.

But to swim is to be a penguin, notes Christina Slagar, curator of husbandry at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who has studied Magellanic penguins in Argentina. In the wild, she said, penguins spend 80 percent of their lives swimming, coming ashore only to molt and breed.

"To me it doesn't seem surprising," she said. "Penguins are extremely social birds."

The news at the zoo has drawn crowds bearing minicams to the penguin habitat. Among them was Norman Livson, 78, a retired psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Livson said the inexplicable behavior of the penguins was a perfect distraction from the human equivalent. Standing beside the splashing swimmers, he said, "This is a lot more life-affirming than what's going on in the world."