Visiting Phillip Island
After moving to the greater Melbourne area of Australia for work, it seemed like every other person we met was telling us to go to Phillip Island. You just have to go they said. You have to go the Penguin Parade. I'm never one to pass up seeing a real wild penguin. Even though I'd already watched little blue penguins come ashore at dusk in Oamaru, New Zealand I was still pumped. I heard someone mention that what Aussies call "fairy penguins" can number in the hundreds on Phillip Island. Hundreds of wild penguins to peep? Emmett and I were like, "Sign us up!!!"
Over our first month working here in Victoria we made friends with our co-workers Leo & Zita, two young German backpackers. A few days before they moved on to new horizons (read: Sydney), the four of us went on an afternoon road trip to Phillip Island.
*Quick side note - The photos of penguins featured at the end of this post are NOT mine. They were provided by the Penguin Parade app in order to encourage visitors to share photos that already exist rather than taking their own. Little blue penguins are very sensitive animals - hence why the Penguin Parade is a no-photo zone for visitors including myself. A little accidental flash photography here and there would make the penguins very stressed.
After buying our Penguin Parade tickets at the Phillip Island Visitor Center, we whipped out our map and decided to drive to Cape Woolamai. According to the brightly colored map of the island, there were plenty of little walking trails around the Cape. Perfect for a quadrant of backpackers who were looking to spend as little as possible. We walked along the surf beach just as a big storm rolled up to the Cape. We had hoped to walk all the way to view a rock formation known as The Pinnacles. However, literally biting wind and rain on the clifftop walked forced us to turn around. The closest we got to the Pinnacles was the picture on the above right. They are the little shape jutting out into the ocean. Cool... right?
Just after our car left Cape Woolamai, we turned down a side street and were met with a tree chocker-full of galah parrots. Ever since I first saw these parrots here in Australia, they have been my favorite bird to spot. In the cockatoo family, these loud birds are a beautiful combo of pinks and greys. I had seen the quite a few times in pairs or groups of four but there were 30 galahs in the tree. I got out to take a picture of them but scared them away with my eagerness to photograph their beauty. Luckily, they didn't go too far and I captured some of them on a powerline.
In a pattern that was to define our Phillip Island trip, the rain came and went sporadically as we drove west across Phillip Island. After driving to a few locations, and having the rain coincide with our car engine being shut off, we decided to explore the wildlife preserve around the Penguin Parade HQ. Our first stop was Cowrie Beach, a rocky little bit of coastline favored by swamp wallabies and Cape Barren geese. Actually, the Cape Barren geese seemed to believe that they ruled this whole section of island. They were always in the road and could not give two hecks about getting honked at by vehicles.
The Nobbies Boardwalk
Next on our route was the Nobbies Center/Lookout area. Leo, Zita, Emmett, and I took a casual walk along the Nobbies-facing hillside which was dotted by little wooden boxes designed for the local penguins to nest inside. They were everywhere. Not only were there these human-made boxes, but there were also plenty of little dug-out penguin burrows right alongside the path (see photo on the bottom right above). I leaned down a few times to see if I could see any penguins inside their nests and what do you know? There was one box that was very much occupied! I could just make out the lower half of a calm little penguin (see below). I was amazed that he was home considering that his hut was merely a few feet off the boardwalk (see photo on bottom left above). It wasn't even sunset yet and we were already seeing penguins and their habitat! Our collective excitement was growing for sure.
The Penguin Parade
After wading through the very diverse crowds at the Penguin Parade Visitor Center/Gift Shop, we walked onto the raised boardwalk that wound through more tiny-box-bedecked penguin nesting grounds. The penguins weren't really there at the moment, just some very rotund swamp wallabies. An hour before sunset was due, we meandered on over to the beachfront stadium where we would soon see the Penguin Parade.
Just as it began to get dark, we saw their miniscule profiles materialize at the shore's edge. First there was a group of five to the left, then about ten or fifteen on the right, and a few more in our direct line of vision. In case you didn't know, little blue penguins, being very small and defenseless, are quite skittish animals. They came ashore, looked around hesitantly and then dove back into the surf. As more and more penguins queued up on the beach, breakaway groups of a dozen or so penguins at a time would make a break for it. Up the beach, onto some rocks.... Nope, nope, RETREAT. One would stop, turn around, then dive back into a wave while the others followed like lemmings. We'd been watching the "parade" for nearly 15 minutes before a few brave penguins finally led the charge and started funneling up the right side of the beach to the tunnels under our bleachers.
At first, I kept count of each new penguin appearance on the beach. Soon, though, I lost count in the growing darkness because there were just honestly too many to keep track. (Later at the Visitor's Center, an attendant told us that the penguins had numbered over a thousand that night!!) Just as the crowd was thinning out and darkness was setting in, we all left the bleachers. However, wasn't over yet. In fact, the best was yet to come.
Instead of making a beeline to the visitor's center and leaving, we waited out the majority of the crowds and had most of the walk to ourselves. We silently crept along, watching the penguins come home in groups. You could also hear the penguins in real life surround sound: squawks and coos for their babies and their little feet splish-splashing through the muddy water of a nearby creek. And you could smell them, too. (Spoil alert: they smell fishy.) Just as we neared the end of the walk and approached the brightly lit visitor center, we spotted seven penguins pausing only a few feet away from the railings. One little guy was giving us a serious side eye - I swear he and I made eye contact multiple times. It was amazing to see such unique creatures so close up. None of us had expected this sort of encounter. We watched them for what felt like an entire magical hour but was in all honesty only about 5 minutes. Those five minutes made the whole night even more memorable than if we had just watched the penguins from the stadium and then left.
The wildlife here in Australia is truly incredible. Our trip here has certainly had it's ups and downs but nearly every favorite memory of mine seems to involve it's amazing native animals. Our quick jaunt over to Phillip Island was no exception.
So, what do you think? Would you go to Phillip Island to see the Penguin Parade?
Planning a Trip to Phillip Island? Know Before You Go:
+ Phillip Island is a 90 minute drive from Melbourne proper. It is accessible by public bus from Melbourne or ferry from the Mornington Peninsula. However, keep in mind that the Penguin Parade happens after the last ferry and buses leave the island. Take a car, join a guided tour, or plan an overnight stay so that you can guarantee time to see the penguins on your visit. There's nowhere else in the world with such amazing access to this particular unique breed of penguin.
+ Phillip Island is not only about beautiful nature preserves and wildlife. There are actually quite a lot of things to do on Phillip Island if you leave more time. There are tons of cute cafes and shops in the town of Cowes. Not only that but Phillip Island is home to a raceway, a koala preserve, and more.
+The best time of year to see the fairy penguins is summertime (November-February). This is when the penguins are most active as they are mating, nesting, and raising their young.
+ Bring an umbrella or raincoat and sunscreen. Like much of the surrounding area, Phillip Island is prone to spontaneous changes in weather. You'll spend a half hour getting sunburnt before getting drenched in a torrential downpour. It's best to be prepared.