Over 4,000 of the 32,000 little penguins (also called fairy penguins or blue penguins), living in the waters around Phillip Island have their burrows near about Summerland Beach. Native to Australia and the smallest of their species at just 33 centimetres, the little penguins leave their burrows about an hour before sunrise and swim up to 50 kilometres each day before returning at dusk. On their return, they are counted every day; usually the number is around 2,000.
One October evening, after a whole day of drizzling, undeterred by the chilly winds, clad in woollens, people from across the globe gathered to watch the little penguins coming out of the sea. The main penguin viewing area at Summerland Beach has tiered seating and provides a 180 degree elevated viewing of the little penguins on parade.
At about 8pm small groups of penguins slowly started to appear. For few of us, sitting in the VIP enclosure, shielded from the wind and cold and equipped with binoculars, the small specks moving towards the shore was the most awaited sight.
Tired after a long swim, with bellies full of food for the waiting babies at home, the little penguins moved languidly. Stopping at frequent intervals, they seemed indecisive to me, but actually, they were too tired to move. Or they could even be asleep, as they shut their eyes for four minutes at frequent intervals while floating on water or even while standing.
The naturalist explained that to protect themselves from predators, the little penguins wait in the ocean until after sunset, to emerge for their nightly trek home to their burrows. With barely any sunlight left, the first band of little penguins come waddling ashore, emerging from the ocean in groups of varying sizes, and, as a group, they make their way across the beach, sometimes stopping at some rocks for camouflage before they bravely continue up the hills to their burrows, some of which are as far away as 2km or more.
As they came closer, I could see them clearly. They were so cute and their walk so adorable. I waited till most of them marched past and followed them. Their burrows were scattered all over the place. Standing on the elevated timber boardwalk, I watched them as they neared their burrows and quickly vanished into them. I imagined the reunion of the babies and parents after a long day, all the cuddling and kissing in the warmth and security of their little homes: rewarding the babies for waiting patiently for their mama, papa and of course, their dinner. It was an amazing experience!
I spoke to some Melbournians, who recalled their favourite memories from childhood from past trips to Phillip Island, to watch the penguins arrive after another day at sea. Best views are always on the way back because you get really close to the burrows. After the parade, we were all stranded, as though caught in a traffic jam, as some of the penguins were passing through the yard in the observation centre. We were stopped, cordoned and let out only when they all crossed safely. Most of us were quite amused and willingly waited with patience.
We were also instructed not to scare them, and be careful to make sure to check underneath the car before we left. The “no photography or video” rule is certainly disappointing, but it is for a reason: penguins depend on their eyes for survival, to find food when diving, and to find their way back to their burrows at night. The white light of a flash would blind them, and may even prevent them from getting back to feed a hungry chick or from reaching their burrow where they are protected.
After a night’s rest in the protection of their little homes, out they go again, before the first light, back to the ocean, to brave another day of adventure and adversity to come back after dark, to their endearing little ones! Don’t you admire the courage and tenacity of these adorable little penguins?