Sunday, January 12, 2014

Make way for the penguins of Phillip Island

DC CORRESPONDENT | 14 hours 17 min ago

Tanushree Podder, The writer is a travel enthusiast.

It was getting dark and visibility was reducing fast. The sea turned into a turbulent mass of waves as we spotted a multitude of Little Penguins (Eudyptula minor), also called ‘Fairy Penguins’, riding their way home on the huge waves slapping the shores.

The birds stood uncertainly in the shallow waters for a while, some of them retreating into the sea, ascertaining that there were no predators around, and then waddled up to the beach in groups.

I was on Phillip Island, 120-odd km from Melbourne, where the Penguin Parade at Summerland Beach remains Australia’s most popular wildlife attraction. We wait in the viewers’ gallery with other impatient people like us, for the Little Penguins to walk up the beach and make their way to their burrow in the dunes. They’re the smallest of the world’s 17 species of penguins, found only in Australia and neighbouring New Zealand.

Suddenly, they arrived in large numbers, riding on the waves, some knocked down by fresh waves as they stood uncertainly on the sand. Like disciplined soldiers, they regrouped and lined up, flapping their wings and stamping their feet, waiting for their commander to issue marching orders. They looked like they were wearing tuxedoes, their white under-belly shining in the night, as they began a slow march, walking in arthritis-afflicted manner, in a single file towards their burrows, where their chicks awaited them.

Around me the wooden walkways resounded with the thudding feet of human beings. Everyone was running alongside the penguins, to catch a better view. Just an hour ago we had reached the tiered viewers’ stands on the beach to spot the parade and now a near stampede was on as everyone tried to elbow their way towards the birds. The balmy evening resounded with excited cries — from the onlookers as well as the tiny penguins. 

 Restless baby penguins peeped from the tiny burrows and called out as the parents made their way towards them. A couple of anxious mothers were calling out to their chicks while a few impatient young ones emerged from the nests and scanned the faces of the parading adults, looking for their parents. From a neighbouring nest came animated cries of welcome to parents who had waddled up to feed their young  pre-digested, regurgitated fish. For thousands of years, this rite has continued unaltered.

Walking alongside the birds on the walkway, it was difficult not to notice the affectionate manner in which the parents fed the little ones, just like human beings. The penguins had begun disappearing inside their nests for a family reunion and a much deserved rest. They would begin the entire exercise once again the next day — and the next.


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