Feature

Phillip Island, where penguins roam

G Magazine

There's much to be said for exploring closer to home.

penguins

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I realise it's been a long while since I've taken the time to sit and simply observe the transition from day to night. The light dims in imperceptible increments as the waves mark time on the sand of Summerland Beach on Phillip Island, Victoria.

We are sitting in the Penguin Parade viewing area, anticipating an internationally famous natural spectacle.

It's a long wait for the younger spectators, who are bundled up in brightly coloured fleecy jackets and beanies and probably expecting dancing or surfing penguins, like the ones in the movies. But the Little Penguins of Australia's most popular wildlife attraction are not here to perform.

Ranger Sally O'Neill reminds us that there is never a guarantee of exactly when the penguins will arrive, or how many will make the trek across the beach to their burrows on any given night.

"You're experiencing Little Penguins in the wild," she says. "You're just watching what they do naturally."

Finally, we hear the "huck, huck" marshalling call of the penguins just before seeing them pop their heads above the water.

They assemble in small huddles at the water's edge. Some groups spook and dive back into the water. Other gatherings edge forward across the dimly lit sand like a troupe of slightly tipsy Roman soldiers in formation.

As the name suggests, Little Penguins are small in stature - the littlest of all 17 species of penguins, in fact. Standing around 33 cm tall, they are less than a quarter the size of their Antarctic cousin, the Emperor Penguin.

As they trudge up the hillside in search of their burrows, we're able to walk alongside and watch the progress of these diminutive creatures from a boardwalk.


It's a far cry from the 1920s and 30s, when local residents took visitors on informal tours conducted by torchlight. In the 1960s, once viewing platforms had been built, the penguins were corralled up the slope through a series of small gates for the entertainment of the viewing public.

Ranger Sally, a resident of the island, describes the present-day eco-accredited tourist attraction as a "reverse zoo": people are "controlled on boardwalks and behind fences" while the penguins "can roam free and watch us".

The impact of human presence on the penguins here has been thoroughly researched over several decades and the number of penguins crossing Summerland Beach documented nightly since 1968.

Today, every effort is made to minimise disruption to the penguin colony: lighting at the parade is muted, photography is banned and the roads leading to nesting areas beyond the parade are closed at nightfall to reduce penguin casualties and restrict human access.

The breeding rates of the Summerland beach penguins are the highest of all the groups on the island, proof of the effectiveness of the rangers' efforts.

Cost

General admission is $21.65 for adults and $10.80 for children (4 to 15 years). There are a number of recently updated and expanded viewing options available. I sat in the Penguins Plus area, which has a viewing platform and boardwalk restricted to 190 visitors per night; adults, $41.20, children, $20.60.

I also popped my head into the Skybox, an elevated and enclosed viewing platform the rangers use to count the penguins each night. Although you're not right up close to the penguins, this is a good choice in colder weather as you're sheltered from rain and wind, unlike the other viewing areas. Adults, $62.00.

Public transport

V-line buses run between Melbourne CBD and Cowes on Phillip Island. For transport around the island, you will need to hire a car or a bicycle.