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“Beach Donkey” the African penguin stealing the show as New England Aquarium hosts annual ice sculpture display

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Seven ice sculptures of African penguins took shape outside New England Aquarium Wednesday as crowds of people passed by throughout the day.

But one of the birds stood out among the others as it wore cool sandals on its feet made of ice.

That ice sculpture is known as “Beach Donkey,” honoring a 24-year-old elderly African penguin who rose to fame at the aquarium this year for overcoming pododermatitis, an inflammatory condition of the feet that caused lesions on her pads. She wore custom booties and took walks around the aquarium for treatment, catching the fascination of many guests.

Beach Donkey is the inspiration behind this year’s ice sculpture display at the Aquarium, one of 30-plus locations participating in Boston’s Waterfront Ice Sculpture Stroll on New Year’s Eve. A crew from Lawrence-based Brilliant Ice Sculptures put the final touches together on the penguins Wednesday.

Due to the large crowds viewing the ice sculptures,  it’s unlikely for real life Beach Donkey to meet her ice sculpture version, said Kristen McMahon-Van Oss, the aquarium’s curator of penguins, seals and sea lions. McMahon-Van Oss has been in Boston for four months, and this is her first year getting to see outdoor ice sculptures after working in the industry in Florida for 30 years.

“She’s already feeling a little bit famous, to be honest,” McMahon-Van Oss said of Beach Donkey. “She does her little tour around the aquarium, and people follow her around the cameras, and she seems pretty comfortable with that. She’s pretty comfortable with fame.”

Don Chapelle and his crew from Brilliant Ice Sculptures used 36 blocks of ice, each weighing 300 pounds, for a total of 10,800 pounds, to assemble the sculptures.

The ice-making process started in late September, said Chapelle, who is in his 16th year leading the aquarium’s sculpture display efforts and has been part of 37 First Nights, Boston’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration. The penguins were 80% complete before Wednesday’s final touches, he said.

“It is so satisfying,” Chapelle said. “When you look at penguins, they’re just so fun, and if they don’t make you smile, nothing will.”

McMahon-Van Oss sees educational value in the aquarium hosting the ice sculptures, especially of African penguins, an endangered species at risk of going extinct within the next 5 to 10 years. The aquarium has 39 such penguins, including Beach Donkey.

Pollution, oil spills and overfishing all cause threats to the temperate penguins found along the southwestern coast of Africa, McMahon-Van Oss said.

“It is really important to be able to get people up close to these penguins and connect with these penguins,” she said, “so they’d get inspired to help with global efforts.”

Ice artist Donald Chapelle marks out what has to be cut away his Lawrence-based Brilliant Ice Sculptures crew creates an ice-carved penguin scene in front of the Aquarium, December 28, 2022. (Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald)
Ice artist Donald Chapelle marks out what has to be cut away his Lawrence-based Brilliant Ice Sculptures crew creates an ice-carved penguin scene in front of the Aquarium, December 28, 2022. (Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald)
Ice artist Donald Chapelle (top) grinds down the ice, showering John Hamilton as they create a penguin scene in front of the Aquarium for this year's First Night celebration, December 28, 2022. (Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald)
Ice artist Donald Chapelle (top) grinds down the ice, showering John Hamilton as they create a penguin scene in front of the Aquarium for this year’s First Night celebration, December 28, 2022. (Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald)

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