A lifelong obsession with penguins has culminated in the ultimate dream trip for bank employee Adelene Cheng, 32. She beat more than 1,200 entries to win a trip to Antarctica, with her write-up about her passion for the flightless charmers.
"I have always been in love with penguins and my biggest dream - and No. 1 item on my bucket list - is to be up close and personal with all 18 species of penguins in the world," she wrote in her contest entry.
"That is a tall order in sunny Singapore as none of these lovely birds is native to our country, but that has not dampened my spirit and endeavour to be with them, one or more species at a time."
The Straits Times, with its travel partners Dynasty Travel and Turkish Airlines, chose Ms Cheng as the winner of a dream holiday for two to the frozen continent, under its ST+ news with benefits programme to reward loyal subscribers.
The 10-day, nine-night Antarctica Expedition Cruise and return tickets to the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires is worth more than $20,000.
Many of the world's penguin species can be found in Antarctica, and Ms Cheng, who has volunteered as a penguin keeper at Jurong Bird Park as well as rehabilitated endangered African penguins in South Africa, cannot wait to see them in all their black and white finery, in their natural habitat.
"They are fiercely dedicated to their chicks, their parental instinct is so strong," she said, adding that hand-raised penguins would follow her around and come when she called their names.
She learnt about the competition from her mother, Dr Fong Meng Kum, 65, a deputy director of nursing in the healthcare industry and an avid Straits Times reader, who contacted her immediately when she read about the competition.
Stand to win through direct SPH subscription
Ms Adelene Cheng's parents have been subscribers of The Straits Times for decades, but they did so the traditional way - through a vendor.
To be able to join a contest for her dream holiday, she converted to a direct ST subscription.
And she ended up winning a cruise to Antarctica, courtesy of Dynasty Travel and Turkish Airlines.
Direct subscribers like her can take part in ST+ news with benefits contests and stand to win prizes such as overseas holidays, gourmet dining treats, concert tickets and discounts, among other perks and freebies.
The ST+ news with benefits giveaways can be found in the SPH Rewards app.
Vendor subscribers who convert will also enjoy complimentary digital access at print-subscription prices.
A direct subscriber pays $29.90 a month for ST (excluding delivery fees) and gets print and digital editions of the paper, whereas a vendor subscriber, who pays the same amount, does not get digital access.
Vendors will not lose out either when a subscriber makes the switch. They will continue to earn their commission from delivering the paper.
Ms Cheng said: "When I found out that I could get print and digital access through a direct subscription at no loss to the vendor, I immediately signed up."
How to convert to a direct subscription:
• Switch to direct sign-up with SPH via credit card at readsph.com.sg/vendor.
• Call the dedicated conversion line on 6319-8878 during office hours from Mondays to Fridays or speak to the customer service team on 6388-3838, also during office hours from Mondays to Fridays.
But what triggered her penguin passion?
Ms Cheng told The Straits Times that when she was a primary school pupil and her mother was away doing her PhD in Australia, she was asked to write about her favourite animal. Unable to make up her mind between a parrot and a penguin, it was the penguin soft toys that her mother sent her from Melbourne that cemented her choice.
Then came a visit to Victoria's Philip Island, famed for its enchanting fairy penguins. The smallest of the species measures only about 33cm tall.
"My love of penguins has stuck all the way till now," she said.
For a hands-on opportunity to learn how to care for these birds, Ms Cheng, an equities structured products specialist, volunteered for six weeks at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, where she helped to rehabilitate endangered African penguins and other seabirds by tube-feeding them and giving them medicine, for example, and releasing them into the wild when they were healthy enough.
She has also volunteered every weekend for 11/2 years at Jurong Bird Park as a penguin keeper.
"We have the King, Gentoo, Humboldt, Macaroni, Northern Rockhopper and African penguins there. I even got to watch newly hatched penguins grow up and learn how to swim and feed themselves," she said.
"With six species down and 12 to go, I am in the midst of arranging for my next volunteering stint in Australia or New Zealand, where I will be able to work with the Little Blue penguins. Thereafter, I will head to Peru to care for the Galapagos and Magellanic penguins."
But Antarctica is penguin central.
According to the Australian Antarctic Division, all penguins are restricted to the Southern Hemisphere and the greatest concentrations are on the Antarctic coasts and sub-Antarctic islands.
The Adelie and Emperor penguins breed on the shores of the Antarctic continent and nearby islands, while Chinstraps breed on islands around Antarctica.
Gentoo penguins are found on islands ranging from the Antarctic to the sub-Antarctic. Another four species - King, Royal, Southern Rockhopper and Macaroni - live on the sub-Antarctic islands.
Dynasty Travel's director of public relations and communications Alicia Seah said: "One of the main reasons people go to Antarctica is for the wildlife and the continent does not disappoint.
"Adelene is an avid wildlife conservationist and we think she deserves to win The Journey Of A Lifetime to Antarctica."
Ms Cheng's parents will be joining her on the trip.
Her father, retired police officer Andrew Cheng, 72, will be ready to document the entire experience with videos and photographs, as he plans to take two or three cameras on the trip.
Dynasty Travel has chartered Ocean Atlantic, operated by cruise company Albatros Expeditions, which has more than 30 years of operational expertise.
The ship is an ice-class vessel - one of the strongest that sail the oceans - and it can access inlets where wildlife abounds. It can accommodate about 200 travellers.
There will be excursions on small boats and landings where specialists will take passengers out and give in-depth explanations of icebergs, rock formations and wildlife. Commentaries will also be in Mandarin.
Return economy-class air tickets to Buenos Aires are provided by Star Alliance member Turkish Airlines, which flies to more countries and international destinations than any other airline.
Ms Seah said: "There will be presentations by professionals who live and breathe Antarctica on board the expedition cruise.
"They have first-hand experience and knowledge of the region and are passionate about what they do."