The attraction known as the ‘Penguin Parade’ has been drawing crowds to Phillip Island (just off of Melbourne’s coast) since the 1920’s, when Australians used to view ‘Little Penguins’ by torch light as they waddled back across the beach to their burrows after days at sea. What ensued however was many years of rampant tourism and the destruction of much of the penguins’ natural habitat, almost wiping out the Penguin colonies along the coast of the island. Thankfully the Victoria State Government created ‘Phillip Island Nature Parks‘ in 1996 – a non-profit organisation focussed solely on the protection and renovation of the Penguins’ natural environment. Since then tourist parks and cottages that had been erected have been demolished and replaced with man-made penguin burrows, in order to encourage these beautiful creatures to once again set up home on Phillip Island.
Now there are over 32,000 ‘Little Penguins’ living on the island, a number which is generally on the rise. It’s safe to say that the Government of Victoria have smashed the whole conservation thing.
True to tradition (and a great way to raise funds for the continuation of wildlife protection), visitors are still invited to go and watch the ‘Penguin Parade’ just like those spectators in the 1920s. While not quite as authentic and ‘natural’, the Phillip Island Nature Parks has constructed three viewing areas along the beachfront that sit around 3500 people per evening and allows them to control crowds and stop any unwanted interactions with the stars of the show.
I was to begin with a little dubious, however on arrival you really see how the set up works. There are three tiers of seats:
- General viewing – these seats are in two outdoor grand stands right on the beach front.
- Underground viewing – seating in an indoor, ground level viewing pod.
- Central Viewing – the most expensive seats are up in the central viewing tower overlooking the beach.
On arrival you are invited to look around the visitors centre, cafe and shop. There’s also lots on information about the penguins and how they are now being protected. Once the viewing opens (around an hour before sunset) you are invited to wander down a series of boardwalks to your seats.
The penguins worked out long ago that crossing the beach to go home was one of the most dangerous journeys they could take, as it consisted of too much open space and opened them up to predator attacks (usually foxes and birds of prey). Therefore the penguins congregate in groups, around 100 metres off shore and wait until the sun has set before swimming into the beach in small groups. They then waddle slowly and cautiously together across the beach until they reach the sanctuary of the grasslands and shelter. They know exactly where to get out of the ocean and what path they need to take to get as quickly and directly to their burrow as possible. It really is amazing how well tuned they have this journey!
Crowds are asked to be quiet and all photography is banned while watching the penguins (but you can see images here) , with rangers patrolling the crowds to make sure everyone sticks to the rules. The beach itself is also cordoned off so that the penguins can do their thing relatively undisturbed.
The evening that we went to this spectacular event we watched around 900 penguins waddle home, some so fat from fish that they could hardly keep up with their group. We then wandered back along the boardwalks where penguins are literally everywhere, enjoying social time and getting ready to head into their burrows for the night. At only a foot tall, ‘Little Penguins’ are the smallest in the world and stand at around a foot tall. I think they can only be seen in some parts of Australia and New Zealand so it was so amazing to see them in their own habitat, and not in a zoo.
If you have a car, you can drive yourself to Phillip Island to watch the penguins, however as we did not we chose to go with a tour company called ‘The Little Penguin Bus‘. It cost just over 100 dollars each (this includes entry) but for that you get driven there and back with a great guide who gives you tons of information, tours Phillip Island to show you wallabies and penguin tracks and gives you advice about the best places to sit during the parade. If I’m honest it was worth every penny and what’s better is that they are a small company so you get the benefit of an intimate group.
The Penguin Parade has been one of my highlights in Australia so far. Skip the standard zoos and go and see these beautiful creatures in the wild; exactly where they are supposed to be.