Australia’s Penguin Parades
Getting up close and personal with pint-sized penguins on the beaches of Phillip Island.
Black jacket, black coverall pants, infrared flashlight, night-vision goggles. It certainly wasn’t my usual beach-going ensemble, but this was no ordinary sunset on the sand. Our small group of 10 was here to see Phillip Island’s famous little penguins, far from the madding crowd.
My husband and I hadn’t planned to be quite so far from everyone else. The so-called Penguin Parade is the biggest tourist attraction on this Australian island, about 90 minutes’ drive southeast of Melbourne. I’d read that tickets get snapped up quickly in the spring and summer, so I’d bought ours online ages before our trip. I chose the mid-priced package, which would put us on bleachers with about 190 other penguin watchers.
When I presented our receipt at the ticket booth, though, the cashier asked if we’d like to join the Ultimate Tour. There were two tickets left and she’d give them to us at a steep discount, but we’d have to make up our minds now. She explained our group would be at a separate beach with our own park ranger. As she spoke, the ranger himself walked by with his eager guests in tow.
“There they go,” she said.
We made a snap decision and joined them. We’d spent all this money to get to Australia. Did it make sense to balk at an extra few bucks to get up close and personal with the penguins?
The tour started with a background talk by ranger Ross Holmberg, who explained there were once 10 thriving penguin colonies on the island. “When European settlers came to this island, things basically went downhill for the penguins,” he noted wryly. People built homes, streets and towns on nesting grounds. Foxes, dogs and cats—more imports from the Old Country—preyed on the birds. Nine colonies were wiped out.
In the mid-1980s, the state government began buying back properties from homeowners near the last remaining colony. The idea wasn’t universally popular, with some residents balking at the prices offered. It took until 2010 to buy back everything. Many homes have been torn down and the area is slowly being returned to its natural state.
Today, some 32,000 little penguins live in and around the Penguin Parade park. Once known as “fairy penguins,” they were renamed “little penguins” a few years ago because, as Holmberg put it, “There’s nothing ‘fairy’ about them.” Even though they’re pint sized—the smallest only reach about 33 centimetres high—they’re tough little birds.
They swim about 50 kilometres and dive up to 700 times a day, Holmberg explained. In the winter, they often stay in the ocean for days at a time. But in spring, they usually come ashore each night at dusk their chicks, waiting until dusk to avoid the keen eyes of predator birds.
After Holmberg’s briefing, we put on the aforementioned black outerwear and tested the headsets that would allow us to hear his commentary on the beach. We brought along the night-vision goggles and infrared flashlights that would help us spot the penguins (illumination is minimal in the main viewing area and non-existent on our beach, because lights frighten the penguins).
Once on the sand, we settled into lightweight folding beach chairs and began our wait in silence, as Holmberg had instructed. The last daylight seeped from the sky, and the wind picked up. I huddled into the jacket and trained my eyes on the surf.
Darkness came in earnest. Still, not a penguin to be seen.
Then my husband grabbed my arm. Pointed toward a greyish blob. We weren’t sure it was a bird until it waddled up the beach. Our little group broke out into excited whispers.
It was probably only a couple of minutes, but it felt like hours, until two or three more birds splashed out of the surf and scuttled across the sand. Things continued that way for a few minutes—one or two penguins, then nothing but darkness.
Was this it? I wondered. It was like waiting for a bag of popcorn to pop. One kernel. Silence. Three. Silence.
Then they came. Pop. Pop. Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. Dozens of them, waddling, flapping, falling, fighting. Our infrared flashlights made quickly shifting patterns on the sand that only we could see. Camouflaged in our black clothes and still as silent as we could manage, we seemed invisible to the penguins, some of whom strutted by almost near enough to touch.
Stars winked on overhead as the penguins streamed across the beach to their nests. After about half an hour, the stream dwindled to a trickle, the trickle to one or two last stragglers. One last pop. Now, it was time for the humans to go home.