If you haven’t seen the little penguins struggle ashore at dusk on Victoria’s Phillip Island, then you’ve missed one of Australia most amazing spectacles.
Just before sunset, 365 days a year, tourists pack into a grandstand in the dunes at the Phillip Island Nature Park on Summerland Beach and turn their eyes to the ocean. As the light fades, small dark shapes begin to break the surface of the sea. More follow, then more, battling through the surf, against the pull of the tide, until finally, they reach firm sand. Like a miniature army they march up the beach. The crowd surges from the grandstand and clatters along the wooden walkways through the dunes, following as the weary little soldiers make their way slowly through the hillocks of sand and sea grass to their shelters, high above the shoreline.
These are the famous fairy penguins of Phillip Island, now more commonly called the little penguins, as this is a closer translation of their scientific name, Eudyptula Minor. The little penguins are found only in the Southern Hemisphere and at 33 centimetres, they are the smallest of the world’s 17 species. Unlike their black-backed brethren, the little penguins’ dark feathers are a rich deep blue which camouflages them both above and below the ocean.
A little penguin may stay at sea for weeks, diving for fish and sleeping as it floats on the surface. It can swim up to 100 kilometres a day and can dive to depths of up to 65 metres. Its skin is kept perfectly dry, during long spells at sea, by its waterproof feathers.
Despite its hardy character and natural assets, the life of the little penguin is precarious. At sea it is at risk from sharks and birds of prey. Rough weather, fish shortages, oil spills and plastic rubbish also pose dangers. On land its survival is threatened by cats, dogs and foxes which can kill up to 40 penguins in one night. And then, there are the tourists who press in their noisy hundreds as close as they can to the penguins’ domain, with cameras flashing, despite the many signs prohibiting this and the impassioned pleas of the Nature Park staff.
With over half a million visitors per year, Phillip Island’s Penguin Parade is Australia’s number one wildlife tourist attraction. It is a magnificent spectacle with all the qualities of a great drama. Set against a sensational seascape of surf, sky and sand dunes with brave, it is a story of tiny heroes, pitted against the mighty forces of man, beast and the elements.
Witness it while you can!