Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Personal Experience with the Penguins at Phillip Island

Published: 25th May 2014 
Penguins are cute enough as they are. But when I first heard ‘penguin parade’, I had even cuter images in mind—penguins in costume, tall hats, waddling down the road, waving and smiling. But of course, that wasn’t exactly how it panned out on Phillip Island, but it was as delightful as it could be.

Phillip Island is about 140 km from Melbourne, a two-hour drive. As we set out, it’s quite a race with the sun, because we have to be there by sunset. That’s when the tuxedoed fairy birds are expected back home.

The fairy penguins, also called little blue penguins, are found along the coasts of southern Australia and New Zealand. They are small with greyish blue plumage, and hence the name. These birds head out into the sea at daybreak and don’t return till sundown. They fish, hobnob with friends and even rest on the waves. And so amusing is their homecoming that tourists flock to the shores to watch them return home.

We drive through kilometers of grazing land without spotting a single human being, through little towns and past several ‘land for sale’ boards that remind you again and again how sparsely populated and vast Australia is. Isolated farm houses offer fresh scones and cream, while the towns typically seem to have only one diner, a convenience store, and a shop selling surfing equipment.

Summer days are long; the sun sets at around 8.30 pm, gloriously too at that. Darkness had set in at 9 pm when we arrived at the penguin viewing area on Summerland Beach. Rushing through the turnstile, past souvenir stores choking with penguin memorabilia, we come out on to a boardwalk that leads to the beach. On the sand, tiered wooden seating that runs down all the way to the beach is the place where you can sit and watch the birds come ashore.

Seagulls dot the beach, wanting their share of attention. Eventually, the stars of the evening start appearing in clusters, emerging from the dark waters in flashes of white and silver. They wait for a while by the seashore, take stock and slowly waddle along up the coast, home to their burrows.

We are fascinated by one little guy who is waiting alone by the shore, watching the waves. When a new group of penguins arrives, he rushes excitedly to them. They have a long discussion in penguin language, one presumes. The newcomers toddle on while our pal continues his wait. Another loner joins him. They exchange a couple of squawks, stand around awkwardly, and then part ways with the newcomer walking off. Concerned as we are about the lone watcher, we leave him on his vigil and go back up the boardwalk to get closer looks at the penguins.

The boardwalks are built along the paths that the penguins take to their burrows. Fascinated, we follow different groups. The birds obviously had a great day of fishing because they have returned with visibly full tummies. Some seem so tired that they resemble sleepwalkers. Others are so full that they struggle to clamber up those last few steps up the slope towards the burrows. Some are holding hands, or rather, flippers. The night is filled with their quiet chirruping and occasional squawks. The occasional hare and kangaroo can be spotted in the vicinity. The penguins are used to the lights, the crowds and the squeals of delight from children. They parade on oblivious to the people watching them. Visitors considerately speak in hushed tones, letting the silence of the night and the sounds of nature take over. Photography and videography are not allowed, though there will be that one pesky tourist who tries to sneak a selfie.

Apart from the penguins, Phillip Island has other attractions to spend a day on, like the koala conservation centre, bird watching, beaches and even a Grand Prix circuit. If you aren’t a penguin person, Phillip Island will surely understand.


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