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Stephanie Heredia, producer, director and co-writer of “On the Wings of Penguins,” left, with penguin biologist Heather Urquhart and Robert Kline, executive producer and co-writer of “On the Wings of Penguins.” The two-month old African penguin chick is yet to be named. Photo courtesy of New England Aquarium.

PR Student to Filmmaker

Alumna Stephanie Heredia Creates Documentary "On the Wings of Penguins"

November 4, 2009

By Valerie Orleans

When Stephanie Heredia was a communications student studying public relations, she didn’t envision herself trekking across the globe in pursuit of a small, 18-to-24 inch, warm-weather-dwelling penguin.

African penguins. Photo courtesy of New England Aquarium

“They’re just phenomenal birds. I think their size, their ability to walk upright and the fact that they’re always well-dressed did it for me,” she laughed. “And they are beautiful swimmers.”

Becoming a filmmaker was a gradual evolution for the 1983 alumna.

“When I first graduated, I began my career in sales in the cable television industry," Heredia said. “I had aspirations of developing programming at the time. I was involved in the entrepreneurial stages … before MTV, HBO and the Disney networks developed into household names.”

After a full-time parent sabbatical, Heredia was determined to follow her passion in communications, with a focus on becoming a filmmaker. Eventually, she earned her master’s degree in film through Chapman University.

African penguins. Photo courtesy of New England Aquarium

Heredia appreciated the different dimensions that film offered—visual storytelling with moving images and audio.

Together with her husband and executive producer, Robert Kline, the couple developed a series of films, most notably one on the Kennedys.

But it was while watching a CNN piece on a 25-year-old penguin named Pierre, that Heredia became smitten with the penguins.

“Pierre was basically going bald,” Heredia recalled. “Penguins need their waterproof feathers to dive into the water and so the biologists at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco decided to make a wet suit for him. I decided I wanted to find out more about these penguins.”

And so for the past year-and-a-half, Heredia has been studying and filming penguins — who originally hail from Africa.

Pierre the penguin decked out in a wet suit vest. Photo courtesy of California Academy of Sciences.

“Most people don’t even realize that there ARE penguins in Africa,” said Heredia. “Since these penguins live in warmer climates, I thought I could better adapt to that environment than going after emperor penguins in Antarctica. Besides, ‘The March of the Penguins’ was such a breathtaking film, how would you top that?”

She spent the next year visiting penguins in zoos and aquariums, talking with marine biologists and caregivers.

“Ironically, many of the African penguins live on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. When the prison closed in 1993, the penguins resettled back there,” she said. “The penguins also can be found in neighboring islands and in Namibia.”

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, most of the marine life in the city’s Audubon Aquarium was killed. However, actress Betty White chartered a jet through the Monterey Bay Aquarium and brought the penguins to Monterey.

“I liked that,” Heredia said. “People helping another species. I think we’re all interconnected and I wanted to also showcase the great efforts being made by marine biologists and scientists and generous people who care about these penguins.

“My hope is that people will find the film inspirational and spread some of that caring and kindness to animals and each other.”

Cal State Fullerton's College of Communications will be screening the documentary on Friday, Nov. 13.

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