The last little penguin colony on the Sydney mainland lives around the Manly Point. (Supplied: Office of Environment and Heritage)
It used to be a hidden alcove for canoodling couples, but the void beneath Manly Wharf is now the love nest for another romantic pair.Two little penguins named Bella and Lucky have shacked up for the breeding season and are expected to give birth to up to four chicks this year.
As dusk settles over Manly Cove, the penguins can be spotted swimming up under the wooden boardwalk before waddling into the safe alcove that extends under the pavement beneath the wharf terminal.
Watching over them each night are a group of dedicated penguin wardens that guard the beach area to ensure Bella and Lucky return to base after a day of fishing.
"We're here to make sure they get to their nesting area safely across the beach," said penguin warden coordinator Sally Garman.
"They were here probably long before we were ... they're used to the bright lights.
"We call them our publicity penguins, our party penguins."
For Ms Garman, who has been a warden for the past four years, the thrill of seeing the penguin couple never fades.
"I still get excited every time," she said.
"Every time we see something different — different behaviour, sometimes extra penguins, sometimes less penguins."
Volunteers from eight to 80Ms Garman and her husband Tony, who live in Curl Curl on Sydney's northern beaches, coordinate a rotating warden roster of about 60 volunteers who range in age from eight to 80.
Sally Garman has been a volunteer warden for four years. (702 ABC Sydney: Amanda Hoh)
Each night, the wardens shut the gates to the beach, stop pedestrians from walking along the sand and spend a few hours recording any penguin sightings and activity.
They clean the beach of rubbish and have rescued penguins caught in fishing lines.
Ms Garman said she once saw a penguin "with a coffee cup on its head".
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While most locals are quite protective of the two penguins, Ms Garman this week had to call in a council ranger after one dog owner responded aggressively to her request to put his dog on a leash.
"Over the last few years we've seen an increase in a positive attitude ... but we do have an issue with dogs in Little Manly — so please dog owners, not in Little Manly and not in this [wharf] area."
Protecting a threatened speciesThe little penguin colony stretches from Cannae Point near Quarantine Beach right around to Manly Wharf.
The penguin wardens advise people not to use flash photography if they see penguins. (702 ABC Sydney: Amanda Hoh)
The New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) report the penguins breed on more than 10 island sites in NSW including Lion Island in Pittwater and Five Islands off Port Kembla.
The little penguins of Manly though are the last colony on the mainland and their population is estimated to be about 150 to 170.
According to NPWS manager Peter Hay, the penguins, which only stand about 30 centimetres tall, are "fairly resilient" despite being under constant threat from one of their biggest predators — foxes.
Last June, 27 breeding pairs were killed in a fox attack.
"Foxes are a constant threat, they're highly urbanised," Mr Hay told 702 ABC Sydney.
"From May to winter foxes are looking for new territory, so it's an unfortunate thing that the penguins are breeding at the same time that the foxes are dispersing and looking for new country and looking for food."
Live back-to-base cameras were installed under the Manly Wharf boardwalk this year. (Supplied: Sally Garman)
As a result of that incident, the NPWS installed live feed cameras this year to monitor fox activity.
So far there have been no attacks, although shooters were sent into the reserve on North Head in May after a fox was detected.
"It was very quickly trapped and euthanased," Ms Garman said.
The NPWS have also installed fox lights to act as a deterrent and have set extra traps.
Mostly monogamousIt is believed the penguins have been in the Manly area for hundreds of years, with good fishing options in the harbour and a rocky foreshore which is excellent for nesting burrows.
They often return to their birthing place to breed and are considered socially monogamous.
Little penguins can give birth to up to four chicks a year. (Supplied: Office of Environment and Heritage)
Mr Hay laughed when he said they "usually stay with the same partner each year but there is some infidelity going on".
The breeding season runs from June to February.
Outside of those months, Ms Garman said the penguins spend about three weeks "fattening themselves up" before returning to land to moult and grow new feathers.
They then "fish, swim and have a holiday" for a few weeks before the breeding season starts again.
Penguin warden Vivienne Walker watches over the little penguins beside Manly Wharf. (702 ABC Sydney: Amanda Hoh)