The best time to see them is at dusk, when they emerge from the ocean en masse and head for their second home, their burrows hidden in the acres of dunes behind a remote beach on tiny Phillip Island off the Melbourne coast of Australia. It is a waddling parade of tiny penguins heading home to feed their waiting chicks.
The fairy penguin, named for its diminutive size, rather than its sexual orientation, has been at sea for days and sometimes weeks, swimming up to 30 miles a day. These tiny penguins are just 13” tall when standing on tippy toes, a feat they cannot manage. They weigh little more than 2 lbs. In short (pardon the pun) they are the perfect and rather tasty meal for the large seabirds that wait for them.
To get to their burrows, they have to venture out of the ocean, cross a huge sandy beach and waddle up through the sand dunes to their waiting families. To do this in daylight would be an act of suicide. They must wait for the light to fade, when their predators should be safely tucked up in their own nests.
Phillip Island, thanks to the incredible care of the islanders, has become a refuge for various endangered animal and bird species, where they have been able to flourish and increase their numbers. The fairy penguins, while not endangered, have also grown in numbers thanks to the policies instigated on the island and there are now 34,000 of these tiny penguins, most of them breeding in a small area of sand dunes on the western tip of the island. Access to this breeding site is strictly monitored but we have purchased two of the limited tickets to see the so called “parade of penguins “ coming to shore at dusk.
We envisaged an amazing sight – 34,000 tiny penguins waddling ashore. But sadly the penguins have not been made aware of our expectations. Only 2,838 penguins come in this night. We know this because, believe it or not, a handful of rangers has the job of counting them every night.
The penguins gather beyond the surfline and wait for the optimal time to swim in and cross the beach. The rangers, who know the penguins well, told us to expect them to start appearing out of the surf at 8.20pm. The penguins however, like all fairies, are prima donnas, and decide to keep their audience waiting
At 8.30 the first of them appear. They hang around in the surf until there are 20 or 30 of them.
And then, huddled together for protection, they make a mad dash for the comparative safety of the sand dunes.
Unfortunately one thing a tiny penguin can’t do is dash madly. They are pear shaped with two very big feet attached to two very short legs. This means dashing is not an option. A fast waddle is the best they can do and if they waddle too fast they tip over. It is slap stick comedy at its best.
Suddenly a large gull appears out of the dark sky and swoops down over the group. The penguins panic, and the group splits up, some rushing back to the safety of the sea, while others waddle on to the dunes. The gull soars up and swoops down again, but it is too late. The penguins have reached safety and survived another day.
Group after group of penguins emerge from the sea and head for the dunes. Raised wooden walkways cross the dunes allowing us to wander through the breeding grounds without disturbing the penguins.
At times they look a little lost. There are thousands of burrows and they all look the same. What’s a penguin to do?
The raised walkways also provide a safe hiding place for the vulnerable chicks who watch eagerly for their parent to arrive
Others venture out into the grasses and scream for their parents.
The homecoming penguins seem to fight noisily over which nest is theirs. The chicks scream some more until they finally get fed.
It is one noisy celebration which we have been privileged to see. But it is just one night in the life of the penguins. They must return to the ocean before the sun rises to get more food for the chicks.
It is also just one night in our life aboard Seabourn Sojourn and we must return to the ship to get more caviar and champagne
Back on board ship, the stick women are exactly where we left them gossiping with friends in the cocktail lounge, a vodka in hand and the bowl of peanuts still untouched. But they too will return to their safe place before the sun rises.
I took the trip to Phillip Island when I was in Melbourne last fall. One of my most favorite Australian experiences.