The elusive Massachusetts penguin


Newburyport, Massachusetts

In today’s episode of Idiot Science: Penguins!
Starring: Dr. David Samuel Johnson, Ph.D. (psssttt, that’s me).

I was driving on Water Street in Newburyport when I saw something strange floating in the Merrimack River.

Are those penguins?

They were! My heart quickened. I happened to have my camera sitting in the passenger seat. I pulled over quickly, but not too close. I didn’t want to spook them. I nervously grabbed my camera hoping to get a picture before they jumped into the water.


The rare and elusive Massachusetts penguin.

Success! I snapped a few more pictures of the penguins – three of them on a piece of ice. I was so lucky!

A thought crept up like a cat on a mouse, “Wait a minute, it’s only 40 F. Not nearly cold enough for ice on the river.” I realized that the penguins were sitting on a piece of Styrofoam. I thought about what a great blog post it would be to write about how these penguins – these penguins of Massachusetts – had to use trash to float on. Oh, what a clever post this would be.

I snapped a few more pictures.

Then another.

One more.

Those penguins aren’t moving. Are those…yup, those are fake.

Standing in a wind that slapped my cheeks red, I mentally slapped my forehead.

Of course they’re fakes. There are no Massachusetts penguins, or for that matter North American penguins. Penguins don’t have an address north of South America!

Penguins live here.
Nowhere near here.

Someone had three plastic penguins loitering on a piece of Styrofoam. Sure, some people will be fooled. But I should know better. I’m a marine biologist. With letters and everything! And I know where penguins are found. I have railed against Coca-Cola in classrooms for their biogeographic inaccuracies for showing a polar bear and a penguin sharing a Coke. Penguins live in the southern hemisphere and polar bears in the northern! They would never meet. That a polar bear and penguin would share a Coke is biogeographically ridiculous.


Ridiculous. Biogeographically even! Harrumpf!  

That my first reaction was, “oh, it’s too warm for an ice” instead of, “uh, there’s no penguins in North America” is embarrassing. But I got fooled. And like a wildlife paparazzo, went for the cover photo before thinking about what I was doing.

Well done, Newburyport. Well done.


9 thoughts on “The elusive Massachusetts penguin

  1. You know what makes penguins on an ice flow off Plum Island/Parker River NWR even more convincing as you drive by? Foggy conditions in late fall. I hit the brakes and was lucky I did not cause an accident. On a return pass, we all had a good giggle. I read later that the homeowner is an artist who enjoys surprising visitors.

  2. My family and I just had a debate over dinner in Newburyport because some of us were convinced they were real. We googled “are there penguins in massachusetts” and your article popped up first. Thanks.

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