Huddled under our blankets, we waited patiently. It had just gone 9 o’clock and the light was slowly fading – it wouldn’t be long now. Like most spectators at the nightly Penguin Parade on Phillip Island, we were getting giddy with excitement at the thought of seeing hundreds of the world’s smallest penguin – the ‘Little Penguin/ ‘Little Blue Penguin’ or even cuter, the ‘Fairy Penguin,’ return to shore after an epic day at sea.
Out in the Southern Ocean little penguins might swim anything from 15-50 kilometres and dive down as far as 20 metres in search of fish. Measuring in at just 33 centimetres tall and weighing as much as a large bag of sugar, the little penguin is native to the southern coastline of Australia as well as the coastal mainland and islands of New Zealand where they also go by the Maori name of Kororā.
We had been lucky to get up close and personal with a little penguin earlier that day by St Kilda Breakwater in Melbourne. As we wondered along we noticed one rather confident penguin appear out of nowhere and give us and other passers by a free show as it paddled alongside us in the water. We spotted another penguin tucked up and hidden (almost) from sight in the rocks along the walkway. This experience exceeded our expectations penguin spotting-wise, but with the hope of seeing a fair few more come nightfall, we travelled to Phillip Island, around an hour and a half south of Melbourne, Australia, where a colony of around 32,000 little penguins can be found.
A healthy population of little penguins live on Phillip Island but the introduction of foxes to the island by early settlers sent the population into decline. In the 1980s, the government stepped in and introduced some protection measures including a fox control program and a buyback scheme which led to the removal of houses on the Summerland Peninsula. Now where a housing estate once stood the land has become a haven for the little penguins. Tiny wooden nesting boxes across the landscape are also giving the colony a helping hand. Viewing the little penguins at the Penguin Parade is a hugely popular tourist attraction in Victoria with a long history. It all began in the 1920s when a group of residents took it upon themselves to start showing tourists the nightly spectacle down on the beach by torchlight.
A little more time passed and at around 9.30pm we started to make out the faint silhouette of a little penguin waddling to shore. Before we had chance to blink another one appeared and a few moments later the moonlight helped to make several more visible. As the penguins waddled nearer to where we were sitting on a viewing platform raised above the ground, half a dozen more followed closely behind. This new purpose-built viewing platform meant we could get far closer to the penguins than the spectators sitting in the original seating area set much further back on the beach. As the penguins came nearer we felt like the little extra we paid was without a doubt money well spent; I mean – how often does one get to feel like they’re in a real-life David Attenborough documentary?
Hundreds of tiny footprints started to form in the sand as the penguins made their way towards us. Slowly at first then speeding up, the penguins took their time waddling over the rocky patches in the sand. They moved in their own individual little ways – some were a wee bit wobbly, some were steadier on their feet, but they all followed a similar pattern: one, two… jump, one, two…jump; stop; take a breath; look around; preen feathers; stand up tall and shake feathers; and repeat. One or two fell over and made us feel guilty for letting out a giggle. A few came close enough to us that we were looking straight into their eyes and seeing the moonlight bounce off their dark blue, wet feathers. One penguin tilted its head back and opened its beak as wide as it could before letting out a loud call to its chicks. Tens of other penguins waddled along making a ‘huk-huk’ sound. Tiny chicks started to emerge on the hillside, all of them eagerly awaiting the arrival of their parents who would be coming home armed with a fresh fish dinner. Surprisingly the chicks seemed to be asking for food from every penguin passer-by. Luckily penguin parents don’t need to worry about their chicks wondering off as although the chicks cannot recognise them, Mum and Dad instinctively know their chick’s unique call.
Though little penguins appear to be quite sociable – always returning in groups from the ocean – they are somewhat surprisingly lone-hunters. When not on land, little penguins spend 80% of their time out at sea hunting for juvenile fish, bringing back anchovies, pilchards and such like. Then each night around 700-1200 penguins return after dark and unknowingly wow hundreds of spectators at the Penguin Parade on Summerland beach. The penguins are returning to land to feed their young, incubate their eggs, to mate or to moult. They always come back to the same spot and intuitively find their way back to their own burrow. When a chick is too young to be left alone either the mother or father will stay inside the burrow to look after it. The parents will also take it in turns to incubate eggs. We sneaked a peek through a well-positioned viewing-hole in the visitor centre that gave us a very special glimpse inside a burrow of an adult penguin huddled up close to its young, protecting it and keeping it warm. Through another viewing-hole we watched closely as a female penguin crouched down low to keep her eggs warm.
The romantics among us will be disappointed to discover that little penguins don’t always stay married to their childhood sweethearts forever. The reality is that penguins change. They can fall out of love. Another penguin might take their fancy – maybe she gets wooed by him over there with the extra glossy feathers, or he goes gaga over a younger model with softer and better preened feathers. Or perhaps one of them just gets a bit bored and wants a change. And then it happens: the family unit breaks down and one penguin is forced to move out of the family burrow. Male penguins can breathe a sigh of relief; it is the lady penguin who must move out of the burrow, brush herself off and get back out there to find a new companion and a new burrow. Divorce rate is between 18-50% among little penguins – if only there was marriage counselling.
As the crowds dispersed and we shuffled forwards to get an even closer look at the penguins, we found ourselves on the front row. With our wind-proof hoods tightened around our faces as the chilly air swept past us, we blocked out those who were left from our sight and sat quietly looking down at the penguins as they waddled past us – incredibly just an arm’s length away. We focused our thoughts only on the penguins and for the next sixty minutes or so we were reminded just how remarkable the natural world is. From time to time my eyes drifted upwards to look at those spectacular southern hemisphere stars, but before long another penguin caught my gaze. After some time, the lights were shut off and we quietly made our way out to allow nature to continue uninterrupted.
To protect the little penguins’ very delicate eyes no photographs are permitted at the Penguin Parade on Phillip Island – for this reason the night-time images here come from Phillip Island’s online photo gallery. To find out more about the Penguin Parade on Phillip Island visit Phillip Island Nature Parks