Sunday and Monday, November 6-7, 2011: Phillip Island and Melbourne, Australia
Phillip Island, located about 90 minutes south of Melbourne, is the home of one of the largest colonies of Little penguins in the world as well as a reknown Grand Prix Racing Track. An interesting combination for a place only about 20kms long by 10kms wide, but the place seems to be constantly busy with folks coming out to spend weekends and holidays here. The island can only be accessed via a two lane bridge on the east side of the island, lending itself to massive traffic jams as folks arrive and leave. Fortunately, we were arriving on a Sunday, so we were in the opposite direction of traffic and got into our motel for the evening shortly after 5pm.
After a nice meal, we hopped into the car and made our way to the southwestern corner of the island, home of the Phillip Island Penguin Parade. A massive breeding colony of little penguins is located here and a huge visitor centre complex was developed to support the constant stream of visitors coming to see the place. We were quite surprised when we arrived to find a few hundred other people (lots of families and international visitors) jammed into the visitor’s centre to view the exhibits before making their way out to the viewing area for the parade.
Little Penguins are the smallest penguins on earth averaging only a hair over one foot in height. By comparison, the Yellow-Eyed Penguins we saw in New Zealand are nearly three times the size. As we walked through the visitor centre, there were a number of exhibits showing the the different aspects of life as a little penguin, along with viewing holes to look into burrows located underneath the building where we could see penguins and their chicks. Being forced to view behind glass is a bit limiting, so we headed outside to make our way towards the beach for the main event.
The Penguin Parade Visitor Centre, in addition to a massive main building, covers a huge amount of land right up to and including a very large swath of beach. Between the building and the beach is several hundred yards of protected nesting and breeding areas for the penguins. Though there was little to see and hear right now, in just a couple of hours, this section of land will be transformed into a squawking, squealing, and energetic haven for thousands of penguins.
We arrived at the beach to find three very large sections of metal bleachers, much the same as one would find at most high school football fields. This was the viewing area to watch the penguins and visitors began to make their way into the rows and aisles to claim a seat looking out onto the crashing surf of the ocean another 50-100 feet away. We approached an employee and asked where might be the best place to view the parade and she responded, “You can actually sit on the beach. It’s all roped off and most folks never consider that option since the bleachers are here. Go ahead and it will be the best possible view.”
We headed down to the very front of the bleachers and sure enough, there was a roped section for folks to sit on the beach less than 20 feet from the water. We were right at ground level, so we would be about as close to the penguins as anyone could get. It was overcast on this particular evening, so the sunset wasn’t really visible, but a few minutes past 8 o’clock, the first little penguin head popped up out of the waves and the show was about to begin.
The penguins unfortunately have a number of predators that would like nothing more than to eat them for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, so the cover of dusk and darkness is one of their most protected times to exit the ocean where they have spent most of the day and return to their nesting and breeding areas to be with their mates and chicks. A group of penguins began to number up in the water a few feet from shore. As this occurs, you can see one or two penguin heads in the surf grow to more than a dozen within a couple of minutes. As the group reaches an appropriate “safety in numbers” value, one or two penguins will then slide on a wave into the beach and began to check the path to their nests.
The distance is not substantial from the ocean to the safety of their burrows, only about 50 feet, but during the daylight, their black bodies contrast against the light colored sand to make them stand out and become easy targets. At night, they still exercise extreme caution, looking for birds, sealions, and other animals, and once they see that their path is clear and safe, the parade begins.
The one or two leaders begin to walk, waddle, hop, and stride up the beach, and then the others follow suit. Thus begins a parade of little penguins that will continue for over an hour as group after group repeats the same cycle of gathering in the water offshore, forming a larger group for safety, sending a scout or two to make sure the coast is clear, and then the entire group of 8 to 25 penguins quickly scuttles their way up the beach to the safety of the burrow entrance and into their massive protected breeding area.
After watching a couple hundred penguins complete this amazing natural process, many of which came within 10 feet of where we were sitting, the rangers came around and let us know that it was time to close up the viewing areas for the evening. It was a fanstastic sight to see and one that would certainly be remembered. As we climbed up the bleachers to head back towards the visitor centre, we thought our evening had reached its conclusion, but unbeknownst to us, the fun was just starting.
While the walk to the bleachers was quiet and uneventful from the visitors centre earlier in the evening, the land between the ocean and the center had now come alive with hundreds, if not thousands of little penguins (adults, males, females, and chicks). With the arrival of the parade, it seemed that the entire colony of penguins was out and active. As we walked along the boardwalk, you could hear screeching of varying volumes, pitch, and intensity, each, an individual signature that belonged to one penguin and his/her family. They were looking for one another and these calls would bring them together.
It was impossible to discern one from another amid the hundreds of simultaneous noises being made in any given moment, but slowly and surely, we watched as penguins found their mates, and chicks found their parents. As the family units reunited it was filled with more squawks of delight, playing and roughousing with the penguin chicks and feeding time for some. Watching all of this activity just a couple feet away was remarkable and was more than we expected when coming to watch.
All visitors were welcome to stay in the breeding area for another hour and we relished every moment as we slowly followed penguins to their burrows, watched chicks get fed (mom reguritates fish mush to the kids from the adult’s earlier feeding in the ocean), and saw just how hundreds of penguins live, interact, and thrive in the colony. It was a great evening and just before 10pm, we headed back to the parking lot to head home to our hotel.
The only major setback for the evening was that pictures and video were strictly prohibited at the site, citing potential harm and injury to the penguins. We were limited to a few pictures that we could pick up at the gift shop, but the memories will be forever remembered of the Little Penguin Parade on Phillip Island.
The next morning, as part of our Penguin Parade visitor’s pass, we were also granted visits to the Nobbies, a seal colony on the southwest corner of the island, as well as a Koala sanctuary and Churchill Island, a working farm and historical landmark just a short distance from Phillip Island. We visited all three, enjoying the sights of these locations as it made for a great closure for the road trip from Adelaide to Melbourne.
We headed north and just shy of two hours later, arrived at our hotel for the evening in Melbourne. We would have just a short overnight here as we would be at the airport the next morning at 5am for the first of two flights that would take us to Ayers Rock. Our place was amazing. Our corner room on the 7th floor had floor to ceiling windows overlooking the city suburbs and provided us with a great sunset to close out our time in South Australia and Victoria.
Tomorrow, we fly to Sydney, and then onto Uluru (Ayers Rock) in the southwestern corner of the Northern Territories for three days of unforgettable experiences in the Australian Outback.