We feel as if we were here to watch a football match. There is a palpable electric feel in the air and expectancy is high. We hear a cry of excitement, “I can see one!” The crowds strain their necks and try to focus on the moon-lit waters. I train my binoculars and catch my first glimpse of a pair of wobbly feet. Now the deep blue sheen of a wing and then the head!
We are on Phillip Island, 140 km from Melbourne, Australia known for its pristine beaches, wildlife and most importantly the ‘Penguin parade’. George Bass discovered the island in 1798 and named it after Australia’s first governor, Arthur Philip. In the late 1920s an access to this island was built and organized viewing of the fairy penguins was organized and tourist traffic boomed!
We enter Phillip Island through a bridge linking the mainland after a scenic drive from Melbourne. We see the Koala Conservation centre, where there’s a boardwalk and we get to hug these sleepy leaf munching marsupials. We also visit the Nobbies centre, which has a camera link with a nearby Fur seal colony and we get to see them frolicking on the rocks! We walk through the main building with coffee shops, souvenir stalls and take a five minute walk along the Summerland beach to reach the amphitheatre- like grandstand.
There are flood lights here and a massive crowd of spectators, many Japanese tourists among them. We see that there are other options too to view the fairy penguins. One is a Penguins plus Viewing platform that gives you a little shelter from the cold winds-at a cost of course! The other one is the elevated Sky-Box only for five tourists, in an enclosed elevated tower that also makes use of latest night view technology and has rangers to give commentaries!
We are given maps and a list of Dos and Don’ts by the volunteers and strictly instructed that photography is prohibited. Penguins’ eyes are specialized for seeing underwater and on land at low light and are highly sensitive to sudden brightness. We are all bundled up as the icy blast whips through our clothing and we are elated to see our first fairy penguins, the stars of the show tonight.
The fairy penguins are native only to Australia and New Zealand. These diminutive birds are only 33 cms tall whereas their Antarctic cousins are as tall as 70 cm! They waddle towards us, some get thrown back by the tide and others assume roles of leaders as they guide the pack towards the green path leading to the burrows in the sand dunes.
What begins with a few birds is now a magical procession of hundreds! Some of them look hesitant as if crossing a busy road, others preen themselves for some imaginary ramp show, and others walk with military discipline in a single file towards their young ones in the burrows. Some penguins are so full of their dinner that they take some rest on the beach before waddling home! We are told that these frail-looking birds leave for the sea at dawn and sometimes swim as much as 100 km in search of food! They lay eggs in their burrows and both parents take turns in incubation.
These tuxedo-clad penguins have the gait of choreographed drunks! They make their way by following the cries of their young. We find it amazing as to how these cuddly creatures reach the precise shores without any homing devices or GPS and make it a daily sunset ritual.
As the penguins walk towards the burrows, we follow them on the dimly-lit wooden boardwalks and see some amazing sights. A penguin feeding a small one with open beak his cache of fish, some penguins communicating in excited cries and others watching the crowds with some interest before disappearing into their subterranean homes.
The wardens lead us towards the exit as we reluctantly leave this grand spectacle of nature. The black and white birds have made hundreds of fans tonight! It is a totally surreal experience. An event of nature has been orchestrated into something like a fairground experience with a truly Australian flavour!
All the more surreal because I don’t have one photograph of the Parade (except for a postcard from the souvenir shop), but I can vividly recall in my mind’s eye even today the sequence of events that night!