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The March Of The Little Penguins

By Daniel Resnik on April 23, 2014 in Other

Picture: Daniel Resnik

Picture: Daniel Resnik

As dusk descends upon Summerland Beach on Victoria’s Phillip Island, elite Little Penguin frontline troops are designated to do early reconnaissance.

Tiny heads appear from the depths of the ocean and vigilant eyes dart in all directions to see if their main antagonists – foxes, dogs and predatory birds – are lurking in the shadows.

Communication is then relayed to the rest of the submerged army as they prepare to land – but not before one final inspection to ensure the would-be killers are definitely nowhere to be seen.

The all-clear signal is given and the first wave of Little Penguins emerge from the ocean and start the long and tedious march to the safety of their hillside burrows in the sand dunes.

Under the cover of semi-darkness they march out of the water, some in packs of up to twenty and some on their own, waddling, resting, observing, then comically and somewhat stoically, revving themselves up to go again.

For creatures that are so graceful, acrobatic and fast in the ocean, they’re anything but on land, toiling awkwardly as they shuffle up the beach towards safety.

Little Penguins are only 33cms tall and each day they dive up to 1400 times and swim about 100 kilometres for food. This ensures they arrive home with bellies full of fish and squid (hence the waddle), which they then regurgitate and feed to the chicks waiting in the hillside burrows.

To witness one of wildlife’s most fascinating spectacles, I sat in prime position along with hundreds of men, women and children on a crowded viewing platform. Boardwalks that go all the way from the beach to the car park were also filled to capacity, offering front row positions to watch one of nature’s most famous penguin parades.

With were accompanied by professional rangers who work for the Phillip Island Penguin Authority and they explained everything that we were witnessing.

Of the 32,000 Little Penguins that live in the waters around Phillip Island, 4000 have their burrows close to Summerland Beach. The rangers’ statistics were so precise that they even knew the penguins’ divorce rate. We were told they do not mate for life. If breeding success is minimal, they will look for a new mate. The annual divorce rate for Little Penguins has been recorded at somewhere between 18 and 50 per cent.

Our penguin tour started from Federation Square in Melbourne at 1.15pm, where we were picked up by an AAT Kings coach for the 90-minute trip to Phillip Island (which is connected to the mainland by a bridge).

On the way we visited the Maru Koala & Animal Park, home to Tasmanian devils, koalas, dingoes, wallabies, wombats, alpacas, various talkative cockatoos and a few inquisitive emus. A highlight for many on our bus was the sheep-shearing exhibition – except for the pretty young girl who got a clump of smelly, matted wool accidently (but amusingly) thrown at her head during the show.

Before going to Phillip Island to see the penguin parade, in my mind the island was famous only for the motorcycle grand prix held there each year. That’s all changed now. With its rugged coastline, beaches and rocky outcrops – especially around the seal colony – it is nothing short of spectacular.

On arrival at the island we were given a tour while the sun was still shining and the air was crisp. We also stopped at the visitor centre, where the views from the maze of boardwalks were simply remarkable. From here, if you are lucky, you will get to see young penguin chicks sitting in their burrows waiting for food that mum or dad will deliver later in the evening.

At about 6.30pm, after dinner in town, we made our way to the viewing platform to wait for the first of Phillip Island’s famous troops to poke their little heads out of the water.
And then the beach ‘invasion’ began…

Travel Bug’s Tip
No matter where you sit initially, eventually you will get to see the little penguins up close and personal along the boardwalks as they waddle home to their burrows.

AAT Kings Bus Tour
Price: Adult – $139; Child – $50
Departs: Daily 1.15pm from Federation Square, Cnr Flinders & Russell Street, Melbourne
Returns: Approximately 9.30pm
Call: 1300 22 8546