Georgetown’s silversmith-turned-penguin-expert Dyan deNapoli is parlaying her passion for the seabirds into a rewarding living, including a dream book deal signed this past September. After years of caring for penguins at the New England Aquarium, deNapoli hit the road determined to raise awareness of their plight: extinction now menaces 13 of the world’s 17 species. She travels throughout New England and as far afield as Antarctica, delivering thoroughly researched programs to children and adults alike.
A crucial contribution to deNapoli’s success began in her mid-20s, when a friend recovering from alcoholism encouraged her to attend a group for those affected by someone else’s drinking. DeNapoli’s experience in this program launched her on a transformative journey from hobbling insecurity, even self-loathing, towards self-acceptance. The group format, with verbal sharing as a vital element, would also prove instrumental in helping her conquer her terror of public speaking.
DeNapoli began arranging for experiences that built her desire and momentum towards working with animals. A swim with dolphins was followed by a month-long Earthwatch expedition in Hawaii, helping with dolphin research. Utterly determined now, and realizing she required a science degree to work with marine animals as she longed to, deNapoli returned to school at the age of 32 and wound up astonishing herself.
She took aim at a veterinary sciences degree at Mount Ida College, with course requirements that were strictly science and math. “I said, ‘Damn it, I really want to do this. I’ve always wanted to do this. I‘m just going to make it work.’…What amazed me was going back to school as an adult with a focus and a goal in mind, how well you can do. All the top students in the class were people my age.” She’d graduate summa cum laude, even earning an Exceptional Achievement in the Sciences award.
Volunteering at the New England Aquarium helped get her foot in the door. DeNapoli went on to spend nine years as an aquarium employee, caring for the facility’s flock of some 70 penguins.
The expertise she acquired proved invaluable when the South African tanker sank. During history’s largest wildlife rescue effort, deNapoli’s dream of directly helping to save endangered species took life in a way that eclipsed all her imaginings. She would be a key participant in rescuing an entire species of penguin, at risk of extinction even before the spill. Without intervention, over 40 percent of the world’s African Penguin population could have perished as a result of the spill. Given the pressures the species faces, scientists believe such a loss would have been catastrophic, ensuring its plunge into oblivion.
DeNapoli and a colleague from the NEAQ were put in charge of 5,000 oiled penguins, which had to be washed painstakingly and repeatedly, using tools that included high pressure hoses, toothbrushes and dishwashing soap. Ninety-nine percent of the 14,000 volunteers who participated had never before handled a penguin, so they required training and supervision by the experts present. Penguins are not only irresistibly adorable – they are rugged predators equipped for survival. The African species wields one of the most infamous bites of all penguins thanks to its razor-sharp beak and formidable set of jaw muscles. Everyone working hands-on with the oiled birds would return home mottled “neck to ankle” with bruises and cuts. DeNapoli carries scars to this day from her involvement.
Battle scars weren’t the only things she took away, though. The experience made a profound impression upon her. “To see so many people willing to sacrifice so much all in the name of the penguins was incredibly moving. There were people there who had come on vacation to South Africa, and they just abandoned their vacation plans and spent every day covered in penguin poo and getting bitten to help save these birds. It just was incredible,” says deNapoli.
On a personal level, “I think prior to this I hadn’t known truly what I was capable of. And to go through that, and to handle it successfully, and as a group to have the positive outcome that we had where we saved 91 percent of the oiled birds, 95 percent of all the birds… it was just miraculous. So I think it really made me feel much more confident in my abilities.”
DeNapoli believes this new-found confidence played a role in her decision to leave the aquarium when she needed time to grieve the death of her mother. “When you’re working with animals hands on, it’s the type of job where you give 150 percent every day and work long, tiring hours. I felt as though I was operating at 60 percent, [which wasn’t] fair to the animals,” says deNapoli, who trusted that her next career move would become clear. She knew she needed something with more flexibility that would still allow her to pursue her passions.
During a “Work at What You Love” seminar, the idea for the Penguin Lady business gelled. DeNapoli took the wealth of inspiration and resources gathered at the weekend seminar and set to work.
She put together a number of educational presentations, established a Web presence, and set about getting assignments in schools, libraries and elsewhere. She honed her networking skills to help build her business. She also committed to ‘walking her talk,’ investing in a hybrid Prius to better align with the conservation values she weaves into her talks.
Besides providing a huge confidence boost, the oil spill rescue experience has resuscitated another youthful passion: writing. From childhood, deNapoli devoured books, and as a youth she composed reams of poems and short stories. One day, she knew, she’d write a book. About what, she hadn’t a clue – until the rescue. It took a number of years to develop the idea, but after she’d toiled over her proposal, an author’s dream unfolded. Agents showed a lively interest. Then, in a pre-empt (where a publisher pays a high advance to secure the deal), Free Press bought her book, which is slated to hit stores in the fall of 2010.
The Penguin Lady will be cutting back on her speaking schedule for the next year while she concentrates on writing her book. Nevertheless, as of November of last year, she’s living yet another dream: presenting penguin lectures aboard nature cruises. First, she gave talks on a tour ship visiting the Galapagos Islands. This January, deNapoli had her way paid to Antarctica as onboard penguin expert for another tour. In both cases, she was approached and asked to participate, without having to actively seek assignments.
It’s a theme that resounds throughout deNapoli’s story: whenever she’s moved determinedly towards her passions, a work life has blossomed that’s surpassed her hopes. It’s already taken her to incredible places, and one thing seems clear – wherever the Penguin Lady goes, she will continue to resolutely follow her bliss.
To learn more about deNapoli and her upcoming appearances, visit www.thepenguinlady.com.
Penguin Myth Busting: DeNapoli’s primary passion is educating people about penguins. She believes these animals possess the charisma to ignite our interest in the broader natural world. During her presentations, she uses experiential learning, humor and props to help the audience absorb accurate information about her endearing yet surprisingly tough subjects. Here’s a sampling of myths about penguins that deNapoli is intent upon busting:
Myth: Penguins are fish (or mammals, or a cross between mammals and birds?).
Truth: Penguins are birds. During a presentation deNapoli gave at the NEAQ, a man argued vehemently with her that a penguin is a mammal/bird cross. “No, actually I’m 100 percent sure that they are birds,” she told the man and the audience of 400 or so. “I stood my ground very diplomatically, but I stood my ground.”
Myth: Penguins live in cold, icy places.
Truth: Of the 17 species of penguin, only 4 generally breed in the Antarctic region. Most dwell in warmer climates, as the countries where deNapoli has observed wild penguins affirm: Africa, Australia, Chile, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, and New Zealand.
Myth: Polar bears prey on penguins.
Truth: “Penguins and polar bears never meet because they live in opposite hemispheres,” as deNapoli puts it. Penguins are restricted to the Southern hemisphere, though one species – the Galapagos Penguin – does reach the Equator, breeding on volcanic islands where temperatures can top 100°F.