One Rainy Night, 600 Penguins

If the opportunity ever arises in life to attend something called a “Penguin Parade”, it would be foolish to decline.  Two generally good things- a strange and adorable waddling creature who can’t decide if it’s a bird or a fish, and a street celebration usually reserved for the 4th of July and Super Bowl victors, thrown together into a catchy alliteration- sounds like a win-win.

Truth be told, it isn’t actually a parade per say, rather a naturally occurring nightly event on Philip Island, located about 90 miles southeast of Melbourne.  Every evening at sundown, hundreds, sometimes thousands of fairy penguins, also called “little penguins”, emerge from the sea to return to their nests, sand-dune burrows scattered across the island. Some are so far from the beach that signs are posted all around the nesting areas kindly reminding drivers to check under their cars for penguins before they drive off at night. (One can only imagine the guilt felt by the poor guy who caused the need for said sign)  All roads on the tip of the island actually close after the penguins have emerged, to provide extra protection for the wildlife. Although, why a penguin would feel the need to build its abode a kilometre away from the sea is baffling, when prime penguin beachfront real estate exists all over the place.

Phillip Island- home to many a penguin

But back to the parade. Phillip Island contains one of the largest colonies of the little penguins, and is one of the few areas they can be seen in the wild. For years crowds have come to view the sight of hundreds of penguins emerging from the sea and retreating to their homes. The viewing areas, boardwalks along the beach and part of the island, have become a massive tourist draw. The whole spectacle is now carefully regulated by the parks/wildlife authority on the island, and viewers must remain quiet and not take any photos, which is strictly enforced- apparently it’s been determined the presence of people does not bother the penguins in the slightest, but light and camera flashes do. Luckily, must people seemed quite respectful of the little guys. (This is also why the top picture is one I took of a reception desk, not of actual penguins.)

For the penguins, it’s a formidable journey every night. They are, as their name correctly implies, little, no more than a foot tall, and at ease gliding through the waves. However, once they arrive on land, its a different story. Being out of water is the most dangerous time for them- they cannot move fast, and are vulnerable to predators, as are their nests.

Once the sun set, they’d begin to pop out of the surf in groups- one intrepid little guy would poke his head out first, looking around to see if it was safe. If he was unsure, he’d head back into the sea and work up the courage to try again. If he did decide it to be safe, he’d exit the water, followed by a waddly group of wet comrades, struggling with tiny legs up big sand dunes(well, big if you’re a foot tall). The slowest waddlers, struggling to catch up with the group, tended to trip over their feet, probably while wondering what on earth was so entertaining about a group of scared penguins high tailing it back home. Without fail there was a slowpoke in each group, affirming a bit of Darwinism one clumsy waddle by waddle. Multiply this a few hundred times (600, according to the park rangers), and add in a strange penguin quacking/mating call and, in my case, pouring rain (this was of no consequence to the penguins, but did scare off a number of humans), and you have an idea of a night at the penguin parade.

More of the island

On the island a very informative museum/information centre has been built to tell visitors a bit more about the penguins. It also shows clips of a BBC documentary about penguins on the island. In the way only the British can, the narrator has taken to give us personal histories of the individual penguins filmed for the doc, given names like “Sparky” and “Stan”, complete with “Coronation Street” like dramas- one (floosy) penguin has been nest-hopping, and doesn’t know which penguin is the father of her unborn babies. Stan (or Sparky) accidentally moves into the wrong nest, causing a fight of manly penguin prowess, and a close encounter with a fox puts Stan on edge.

It’s a pretty endearing observation of wildlife and the survival instinct and sheer determinism of the little penguins is a distinctly Australian thing to see.

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