Monday, December 11, 2006

The Little Penguins of Phillip Island

I had the privilege of seeing one of nature's wonders first hand yesterday. So many people travel by air on Fridays and Saturdays that I was able to save US$600 by flying on a Sunday, thus giving me an unexpected Saturday in Melbourne. Tourist brochures offered a variety of trips into the Victorian countryside and I chose the nightly "Penguin Parade" on Phillip Island. Andrae decided to accompany me. I was excited at the prospect of seeing the world's smallest penguin species in the wild. The little penguins (Eudyptula minor) are called just that. They were once called fairy penguins in Australia, but use of that name is passing.

Phillip Island is two hours by bus from downtown Melbourne, East and South through former horse country turned into new suburbs. The bus picked us up at my hotel at 4:30 PM, circled through the city's other large hotels and stopped at the tour office for 15 minutes. Andrae and I did the natural thing for geeks; we spent 14 minutes at a nearby bookshop. Andrae spent most of the trip out reading my copy of Patrick Cleary's The Myth of Nations; The Medieval Origins of Europe while I got stuck into Terry Pratchett's hilarious and insightful Thud.

The island is dominated by human activity. A four-lane pylon-and-arch bridge traverses the bay and leads to an economy split by agriculture and tourism. Residents grow wheat and grapes, raise horses and cattle, mine sand, operate caravan parks and services businesses and do a bit of commercial fishing. The Penguin Parade used to ring the island's coast nightly before the coming of humans, but the twentieth century saw so much habitat destruction and interference with breeding and brooding that only a single colony at Summerland Peninsula remained by the 1980s. That colony was saved by the concerted efforts of the Penguin Parade staff and a bit of entrepreneurial eco-tourism. They even used tourism money to purchase land from an adjoining housing development to extend the reserve land. The population is slowly increasing.

Biologists have been counting and studying the penguins since the 1960s. A full-time biologist was funded in the 1990s and now runs the research effort. Counting is done manually, through binoculars from an observation tower. We were told that the penguins have so far defeated more technical and exacting techniques. There is also the issue of observational consistency. Using the same method of counting year after year ensures the numbers do not require complicated normalization.

A large welcome centre includes the critical food and gift shops, ticket sales and offices. A wide boardwalk leads to the sea past acres of penguin burrows. The boardwalk splits two thirds of the way down. The main path goes to the observation tower and two large viewing stands. A smaller walk leads to a separate and lower set of raised bleachers for those who were willing to pay a bit more. Andrae and I paid up to get closer to the penguins.

No cameras were allowed, although photos were naturally for sale in the gift shop. The penguins would be quite bothered by flashes and people, being people, cannot be trusted not to shock them into abandoning their eggs for the chance of a good shot. Rangers were on hand to police that decision and also the strict ban on littering. It seemed to work. I saw little trash and no flashes. The seating areas were lit with monochromatic yellow light that penguins cannot see. Humans found it comfortable, if a bit dim and odd in a way hard to explain. Penguins see only in the blue portion of the spectrum, so the yellow lights do not bother them.

The penguins come ashore after one or two days' hunting for juvenile fish and squid. They come ashore carefully after sunset. A few will surf ashore, and scuttle back to the sea at the first sign of trouble. A larger group will eventually gather near shore and make a break for land in a grouping aptly called a raft.

They really are small. An adult is about 33 centimeters (thirteen inches) tall and weighs just a kilogram.

They scramble over the seaweed, walk and hop up the sand dunes and head straight for their burrows. The burrows themselves are dug in firm sand, or in this area, some are in man-made boxes to encourage population growth. Penguins can live long lives and may change partners several times, but like to return to the same burrow if they can. The oldest penguin studied is over twenty years. That is quite an accomplishment given the average life span of six and a half years!

December is breeding season. We saw one mating pair and heard others. Coos of little chicks erupted as one parent returned from fishing to regurgitate food to them. Parents take turns feeding and protecting chicks until they are old enough to grow their own waterproof adult feathers and hunt for themselves. Babies have a short 35 day gestation and undergo very rapid growth. After only six weeks, the young can hunt in the open ocean. The young, full of energy, can go as far as Adelaide on their early trips! The average is more like 10-15 km in a day, but some penguins from this colony have been found as far away as Sydney.

Most will fish for a day and return, some may stay out for up to five days.
They hunt alone when in the open ocean. They must return to the colony to preen their feathers (and get them preened), socialize, mate, lay eggs, care for young. All of their eating is done at sea; they eat nothing on land.

Little penguins can dive as deep as 65 meters, as determined by depth gauges strapped to a few by the researchers. Average depth of a dive is about 10-15 meters, but diving depths have recently increased due to a virus is one of their main food sources. They breathe air, and so have to return to the surface after each dive. Dives can last as long as a couple of minutes, but average around 40 seconds.

These penguins, like most birds, have eyes on the sides of their heads. This is a common trait of land-based prey animals, but these little guys are hunters. They are also prey. They are vulnerable at sea to sharks, tiger seals and some seabirds, and on land to falcons and mammals such as foxes, dogs, cats. Seagulls won't eat them but, as scavengers, will sometimes attack them to make them vomit their food.

Phillip Island provides an opportunity for the general public to participate live in one of nature's dramatic events, close to a major city. Yet the experience is safe for the penguins, too. The experience is eco-tourism done right. One can see the full panoply of a species living, growing, feeding, breeding, surviving predation just as if David Atenborough were there narrating and yet they are safe and uneffected by our presence. The organization of the facility and constant watch by the rangers allow the species to thrive in spite of us. That is a beautiful thing. I highly recommend that anyone who can see the little penguins of Phillip Island, especially since all proceeds go to the operation of the not-for-profit foundation and its research program.


  1. Anonymous12:32 AM

    it's a pity that camera is not allowed. nevertheless the content is rich enough for me to jealous ur trip:). good job. make sure carry on with it. merry christmas!