On one of Australia’s southernmost islands, nature’s nightly ritual has been delighting guests on Australia travel for years.
They’ve been Victoria’s number one wildlife attraction for decades, yet they’re less than a foot tall, don’t have pouches to carry their young, are found in countries other than Australia, and come ashore by the thousands every night.
The Little Penguins of Phillip Island have become an important symbol of Victoria and Australia’s southern coast. Outnumbering the island’s human residents three to one, the birds are its star attraction, as visitors flock to designated viewing areas on the beach to see the penguins come ashore each night. A visit to Phillip Island to see the “Little Penguin Parade” has become one of Melbourne’s most popular day trips, often alongside a journey down the Great Ocean Road, and a trip back through time to the Gold Rush era, visiting Sovereign Hill.
Making their home on Phillip Island, a two-hour drive south-east of Melbourne, the Little Penguins set out each morning before dawn, diving into the waves to spend anything up to three weeks at sea. Once there, they gorge themselves on fish and other prey, sleeping very little and not returning to dry land until they’ve had their fill.
Cue Phillip Island’s famous Little Penguin parade.
Each night at dusk, thousands of the birds waddle up the beach, trekking up to two kilometres to their home burrow (or just a few metres, for those fortunate enough to have claimed waterfront property). Just as reliably, excited visitors trek down the boardwalks to the dedicated viewing platforms, where they enjoy a clear view of the penguins coming ashore, then follow the birds as they waddle up the tracks they’ve taken every night since centuries before human settlement.
A visit to see the penguins requires a bit of extra planning, however, as conditions and timing varies widely according to the time of year. The Little Penguins come ashore at dusk each day, every day. In this southern corner of Australia, that can mean 5pm in the middle of winter, or close to 9pm in the long days of summer.
After more trips to Melbourne than I can count, including an extended stint living in the city, it’s my first ever visit to Phillip Island, and my first time seeing the penguins on Australia travel. We’re met promptly near our CBD hotel in Melbourne at the very reasonable hour of 10:30, then taken swiftly and comfortably out of the city with our small group, bound for the coast the penguins call their own. It’s also the peak of summer, so we have 10 hours to fill in before the main show begins.
Our first stop visits some better known Australian natives at a wildlife sanctuary on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. After enjoying a barbecue lunch, we have the chance to get up close and personal with Western grey kangaroos, wallabies, and pademelons, who are only too happy to feed directly from our hands. A quick tour of the sanctuary also reveals wombats, quolls, dingoes, a wide range of Australian native birds, a particularly shy Tasmanian devil, and of course koalas, who are gently persuaded to break their 20-hour-a-day nap cycle to take photos with guests. Nothing compares to seeing these amazing creatures in the wild, but today is all about penguins, so, pressed for time, this is the next best thing.
Located two hours drive from Melbourne, Phillip Island has a long history associated with the city. Churchill Island, located across a short bridge from Phillip, is one of the oldest white settlements in the area, though it had been home to the Boon wurung Aboriginal people for many years prior. In the early 1800s, it became one of the first farming settlements in Victoria. Reaching it was no small feat, as it involved a two-day ferry journey from Melbourne, until the roads were built connecting to Phillip Island and its surrounds. The tiny island’s farms stopped producing in the mid 20th century and were bought by the state for a heritage park soon after. Today, Churchill preserves a taste of its history for curious visitors on Australia travel, offering demonstrations of sheep herding and shearing, whip cracking – with the chance for guests to try their hand, and more.
Nature, however, dominates the show on Phillip Island. It starts with another chance to see koalas, this time in the wild, at the Koala Conservation Centre. Balancing the chance to see these animals up close with a wild environment where the koalas can safely roam, the centre allows guests to wander between the gum trees, enjoying some prime photo opportunities without disturbing one of Australia’s most famous native species.
The penguins are found a short distance away on the Summerlands peninsula. A safe haven from the feral animals that have ravaged the Little Penguin population on the mainland, Summerlands closes to traffic each day in anticipation of the penguins coming ashore. This helps to keep the path back to their burrows clear. A visit to the region known as The Nobbies, located at the end of the peninsula, takes us on a walk between the penguin burrows, with a chance to see some of the birds guarding their front doors. Still, considering they’ve survived the appetites of hungry seals, and made the grueling trek up the steep escarpment, one has to appreciate the penguin who thoughtfully poses outside its burrow for photos!
For me, this is my favourite part of the day. Even though the wild weather of Victoria’s coast has showered us with occasional rain, and whipped up a cold breeze in the middle of summer, the views of this rugged coastline are spectacular. But it’s particularly rewarding to enjoy such a close view of the penguins while there’s still light, with so few tourists around.
Finally, one final short drive through Summerlands brings us to the penguin parade site itself, and speaking of tourists… yes, this is one of the most popular day trips on Australia travel! So popular, in fact, it’s recommended you pre-book your entry, or embark on an organized day trip such as ours, particularly around holiday periods. That includes Chinese New Year, as the penguins are popular with Australia’s international guests as well!
The Little Penguin Parade is a smooth operation that takes guests from a visitor’s centre down a series of low-impact boardwalks to the shoreline, where they’ll watch the feathered critters emerge from the rapidly darkening waters. The number and speed of the penguins will vary according to conditions, but a good show is pretty much assured in any weather at any time of year. Penguin vision – which can’t see red – ensures the birds aren’t intimidated by the bright lights that illuminate their route, though guests are requested to refrain from all photography. Flash photos can stun the birds, and a few forgetful photographers have unfortunately necessitated the blanket rule. Guests can however download professional photos of the penguins from the Little Penguin Parade app, free from watermarks.
Viewing is split between two main areas. The standard ticket offers a straight-on, uninterrupted view of the beach. Those who upgrade to a “Penguins Plus” viewing, as we did, will enjoy access to a boardwalk that brings them in closer to the penguin’s nightly route. This area also contains an underground observation window, which can be accessed at additional cost.
While the full penguin parade will last through the night, it’s now close to 10pm, and our bus back to Melbourne is waiting. Following the penguins as they waddle alongside the boardwalk, we’re witness to attempts to feed chicks, squabbles over position and pecking order, and the occasional gourmand straggler now facing the consequence of over-indulgence at sea as s/he waddles up the path.
As the doors to the visitors centre shut behind us, we hear the last squawks of the birds who bring pleasure to so many nature lovers each night in this very special corner of the world. Nature lovers from around the world board their vehicles, ready for the drive back to Melbourne, forming their very own nightly little tourist parade on their Australia travel.