And visitors will have more opportunities to see the birds waddle around on land and dart through the water — just as they were born to do off the coast of Africa.

"It's going to be fun," said Jess Phillips, manager of Rock Island and its surroundings at the zoo.

Hutchinson says tiers and tunnels and indoor and outdoor spaces will give visitors unprecedented views of the penguins.

"The viewers are going to be able to see them from every angle possible," he said.

Officials say the larger space also will allow the zoo to double the current population of about 50 birds. They say breeding efforts based on a population of 100 birds will vastly increase the colony's value to the global African penguin population by increasing its ability to establish diverse genetic lines.

City tourism officials also believe the new facility will boost attendance at the zoo, drawing in people from the Baltimore area and beyond.

"The zoo has a real opportunity to drive additional visitation," said Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore. "By doubling the number of penguins and adding opportunities for visitors to engage and immerse themselves in the penguin habitat, the zoo is in a great position to be the destination to visit for African penguins on the East Coast."

Baltimore-based construction and contracting company Whiting-Turner is already at work.

Hutchinson says he sees the exhibit bringing the zoo back to its heyday in the 1950s as a favorite destination for city residents, students and travelers to Baltimore, like the National Aquarium in the Inner Harbor.

"It firms up our place in the national zoo community," he said. "It gives us the opportunity to be one of those zoos that's taking the next step."

African penguin exhibit

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore's new $10.4 million, 1.5-acre exhibit for African penguins is expected to open to the public in October 2014. The 10,500-square-foot facility will allow the zoo, which currently has space for about 50 penguins, to double the population. It will have a state-of-the-art filtration system, saving about 7 million gallons of water a year. Tiers and tunnels and indoor and outdoor spaces will give visitors unprecedented views of the penguins.