Turtle Back Zoo

Shores of Africa Penguin Exhibit

“Keeping the construction of a warm-weather penguin exhibit on schedule during the bad weather of a cold, New Jersey winter can’t be easy—but Tenji took it in stride. They never came to us with problems. They always came to us with solutions.”


When people think of penguins, they imagine ice floes adrift in Antarctica. It often comes as a surprise that different species of penguins thrive north of the equator in the warmer waters of the Galápagos Islands. And thanks to Tenji and the Turtle Back Zoo, you can also find a thriving colony of warm water, African penguins living happily in West Orange, New Jersey.

Penguins have long been one of the most popular attractions at Turtle Back and zoo staff wanted to expand their colony and improve access to these charismatic creatures. They hoped to create an indoor, climate-controlled environment that would better protect the birds from the extremes of the New Jersey climate.

The approved design called for an enormous fabricated rock wall filled with nooks of nest burrows to encourage breeding. A 30,000-gallon saltwater pool. Multiple viewing levels allowing visitors to follow the penguins above and below water. Extensive plumbing, chick monitoring, and life support systems. And it all needed to be constructed inside an unfinished building still open to the elements, in less than ten months, during the coldest time of year.

A project this complex requires a spirit of tenji to complete on time and on budget—and that is exactly what the Tenji team did.


  • As the outer building for the exhibit was still under construction and not yet closed out, Tenji engineers had to find a way to create temporary climate control. This included controlling temperature for the install of the acrylic windows in the dead of winter.
  • The life support room would need to contain pumps, heaters, filters, controllers, and other electronics that would also need some form of protection from the elements.
  • The exhibit design called for multiple viewing levels—above water, half-in and half-out, and completely submerged.
  • Unexpected jobsite challenges, like water runoff from the mountain behind the building, called for creative, on-the-spot drainage solutions.
  • Space for life support system elements and other critical aspects of the project was at a premium, so Tenji engineers were tasked with minimizing space and staffing requirements.
  • And like all high-profile projects for nonprofit institutions of this caliber, the exhibit needed to be completed to the highest quality on a tight budget in just ten months.


The skilled and experienced builders and artisans of Tenji’s in-house aquatic construction team pride themselves on realizing the visions of other designers without compromise. Despite setbacks the exhibit designer could never have anticipated, the Tenji team found innovative, in-the-moment solutions that kept the project on track while keeping true all available models, schematics, and drawings.

  • Tenji engineers built temporary structures and created a climate control system that allowed construction to continue on schedule throughout the colder, wetter months.
  • Our builders sourced special solvents and glues and other materials rated for extreme temperatures in order to keep construction on schedule.
  • When water runoff from rocks behind the facility began to interfere with the exhibit, our extensive, hands-on experience with drainage solutions allowed us to channel the water around key systems without increasing costs.
  • Tenji’s best-in-class ability to create accessible, easy-to-use life support and maintenance systems made an enormous difference in how Zoo staff felt about the new exhibit. Despite the fact that it is their largest aquatic exhibit, employees feel it is by far the easiest to access, understand, and maintain.

Moving and expanding the African penguin exhibit paid off for Turtle Back Zoo. Not only has the exhibit drawn increased visitors, the penguins are fundraising powerhouses! Behind-the-scenes tours and “Breakfast with the Penguins” have become some of the zoo’s best-attended attractions—and illustrate the practical power of tenji.