When news happens, text SDE and your photos or videos to 80360. Or contact us by email and phone.
Marwell's Ralph the penguin gets new designer wetsuit sponsorship deal from O'Neill
12:33pm Friday 11th January 2013 in In Depth
An international surf firm has come to the rescue of a featherless penguin - by creating him a new designer wetsuit.
Bald Humboldt penguin Ralph, 14, was at risk of sunburn after all his body feathers fell out in just one day, rather than the usual few weeks.
With nothing to protect him from the weather, the two-feet-tall bird faced a depressing three weeks indoors as he waited for them to grow back.
It would have meant staying away from his friends, partner, and young chicks at Marwell Wildlife, near Winchester.
But now California-based O'Neill has given poor Ralph a sponsorship deal - usually reserved for international surf and snowboarding stars.
The firm has made a warm and protective wetsuit that offers a snug custom-measured fit, and includes holes for his head and wings.
Ralph is now swimming, eating, and playing with the other penguins as usual.
The rubber in the wetsuit - which is the same as in a human's wetsuit - is extremely flexible and does not restrict his movement.
It even has his name on the back in large white print.
Ralph first took the plunge in a wetsuit made from the leg of a suit donated by a member of park staff.
But three years of swimming and grooming took its toll and left his old suit "tatty", freyed at the edges, and coming apart at the seams.
His keepers put out an appeal for a new suit and were delighted when O'Neill heard of his plight and responded.
Anna Ing, from Marwell Wildlife, said: "Ralph was in desperate need of a new wetsuit as his old one was starting to fall apart.
"His wetsuits see a lot of activity with him constantly on the go, swimming, climbing rocks and preening.
"He certainly looks the part with his custom made O'Neill wetsuit.
"He has been preening his wetsuit just as he would if he had feathers and his partner Coral has joined in too."
Anna added: "Ralph is a very healthy bird, but for some reason his feathers drop out very quickly, before the new feathers grow back in time.
"Every year is different for Ralph and we can never be sure when he will lose his feathers but as soon as he starts looking bald we put the wetsuit on him.
"Ralph has had a wetsuit before so he is used to wearing them and acts just like any other penguin in the colony."
When penguins moult over a period of around three weeks every year their old feathers are replaced with a new, clean set.
But Ralph has baffled keepers by losing all his feathers in just one day, leaving him strangely bald apart from his head.
Keepers initially thought about covering the bird in suncream but reasoned it would quickly come off in the water.
The suit has the added benefit of keeping him warm on cold nights.
Visitors are already flocking in to his enclosure to see Ralph parading around in his special gear.
Steve Peters, from O'Neill, said: "It was an absolute pleasure for us to provide Ralph with a new wetsuit.
"In celebration we would like to invite him onto the O'Neill team. After all, he is the ultimate coldwater specialist."
Humboldt penguins live along the coasts of Peru and Chile within the reaches of the Humboldt Current.
It is a cold current of water running from the Antarctic to the equator, from which they take their name.
Humboldt penguins are thought to be declining in number, possibly due to increasing water temperatures and reducing food supply.
They can live up to 30 years in captivity.