“Just to the right of that rock,” ranger Ash Belsar said, pointing, as we grabbed our night-vision gear. “You’ll see one straight ahead.” I put the lens to my eye and scanned the beach. There it was: my first little penguin of the night, wobbling out of the surf.

And it really was little. In fact, at about a foot tall, the species (Eudyptula minor), which can only be found in New Zealand and southern Australia, is the world’s smallest variety of penguin.

Our group had been strangers just a half hour before. Each of us had come to the southwestern coast of Phillip Island, about 50 miles south of Melbourne, to witness the Penguin Parade – an event that has brought locals and tourists together for more than 80 years.

Pyramid Rock, just off the coast of Phillip Island. (Photograph courtesy Phillip Island Nature Parks)

Pyramid Rock, just off the coast of Phillip Island. (Photograph courtesy Phillip Island Nature Parks)

After the sun sets each day, thousands of little penguins totter ashore to burrow into the sand for the night. A massive crowd was filing into the stands in the main viewing area, but we would be getting a more intimate view: from the beach on a remote part of the island, with only night-vision goggles — and the light of the moon and stars — to help us see.

As Belsar explained, the parade we were about to watch was a tradition that had once been in danger of disappearing. As more and more people moved to Phillip Island during the last century — bringing with them pets, cars, trash, and invasive species such as red fox — the little penguin population plummeted.

By the 1980s, with penguin numbers on the island down 90 percent, the Victorian Government started a program to buy up homes in a nearby residential development to create a sanctuary for the birds. “To the best of my knowledge, this is the only time a housing estate’s been moved in Australia to protect wildlife,” Belsar said.

He went on to explain that in addition to a conservation prerogative (and the threat of losing tourism dollars and jobs), nostalgia played a big role in prompting action. “As kids we all came here,” he said. “There would have been public outrage had we lost the penguins.”

Though the government and the nonprofit Phillip Island Nature Parks collaborated to create the sanctuary, the entire community has come together to ensure the penguins are protected. Every night at sunset, streets are closed and parking lots are evacuated along the penguins’ route. These efforts have helped the once beleaguered colony surge to 32,000 breeding adults — now the second largest in the world.

Another penguin appeared out of the water, then three, then four. Scientists have been conducting conservation research on the island since the 1960s, including a nightly count. While Belsar was leading us on the tour, he was keeping a running tab of how many penguins he saw. Tonight he counted about 50.

Little penguins on parade. (Photograph courtesy Phillip Island Nature Parks)

Little penguins on parade. (Photograph courtesy Phillip Island Nature Parks)

After the stream of little penguins began to taper off, Belsar guided us single-file using a dim light to make sure we wouldn’t accidentally step on any of them. It was so dark, and they were so small, that this felt like a real possibility.

When we came to the wooden steps that led from the beach, Belsar stopped and pointed to a penguin a few feet in front of us that was taking the same route. It managed to lift its little body up onto the first step, then the next, waddling back and forth. It was a little shaggy (this time of year the little penguins were molting their feathers) making its movements all the more comical. When it reached the landing, it seemed confused, walking left, right, then back again. We watched in silence, as it figured out its own path. And when it finally found its way back to a dune, we continued on our way.

We made one more stop that night — for a quick astronomy lesson. Belsar pointed out the Magellanic Clouds above us, then the stunning Milky Way. I’d never seen it so clearly before; it looked like a swath of glitter had been painted across the sky. As Belsar told me later, sometimes what’s going on in the sky is as incredible as what’s happening on the beach.

As I looked up at the stars on the walk back, surrounded by penguins waddling to their burrows, I wondered how many millions of times this same journey had played out — not just during the 80 years since tourists have seen it, but for the thousands of years well before European settlers, and perhaps even Aboriginals, ever set foot here.

Though this nightly tradition has changed dramatically over the centuries, witnessing it showed me a glimpse of raw nature that most people — especially city-dwellers like me — don’t get to see often enough. It was a reminder that there are still truly wild places out there — and they are worth exploring, and protecting.

See it for yourself:

You can catch the Penguin Parade any day at sunset on Phillip Island, a 90-minute drive from Melbourne.

While many tourists visit Phillip Island for the day, Belsar — who also runs adventure company Outthere Outdoor Activities — encourages longer stays to enjoy the island’s world-class surfing and snorkeling, and trips east to Wilsons Promontory National Park, which he calls an “untouched paradise.”

And if you can’t make the trip but still want to support conservation efforts, you can always adopt a penguin to help protect them from afar.

Emily Shenk is an editor at nationalgeographic.com. She has written for several publications, including The Washington Post

Comments

  1. Judith Siess
    United States
    July 12, 2013, 10:27 am

    We saw the fairy penguin parade years ago. After the “show,” I felt ashamed. Ashamed that I had contributed to this horrible exploitation of the penguins. Instead of just being able to come in from the sea to their nests, they had to endure hundreds or thousands of tourists, floodlights and flash bursts (even tho the announcer asked people not to use flash). Why don’t the environmentalists/PETA object?

  2. Emily
    July 12, 2013, 1:09 pm

    Hi Judith – The tour described above is a small group tour (limited to 10 people) on another part of the island. At no time were the penguins disturbed by our presence, as we were not taking any photos, were not speaking (except for rare, whispered directions from the guide), and were dressed in black clothing that they provided so that we would be difficult to see.

    I can’t speak for the general experience, where people do watch from stands with some lighting, but it’s my understanding that changes have been implemented in recent years that include limiting the number of people allowed to watch, strict no photography rules (even without flash), and paths for walking so as not to harm the penguins’ burrows.

  3. Ian Faulds
    Bellingham, Washington, United States
    July 13, 2013, 1:57 pm

    While in Dunedin, New Zealand we visited Penguin Place (http://www.penguinplace.co.nz/). They have a setup where you walk through a network of tunnels and covered trenches disguised into the natural environment so as not to disturb the wildlife. Yellow Eyed Penguins are primarily in the protected area, while Little (Blue in New Zealand) Penguins were largely on the opposite side of the Otago Peninsula, in a less protected area including the main shipping channel and locations where tourists could view them for free in the evenings.

    Ian Faulds
    http://www.ianfaulds.com

  4. Suzette
    Los Angeles, CA
    July 14, 2013, 8:40 pm

    Can’t wait to see that! Thanks for sharing.
    - Suzette
    http://www.trysomethingfun.blogspot.com

  5. njoyeverymoment
    india
    July 17, 2013, 2:06 am

    wow…could love to adopt one penguin for sure ….they are soooo cute <3 <3 <3

  6. Paul Blackburn
    Fayetteville , AR.
    July 20, 2013, 3:03 am

    I just watched Rocky the bear kill a trainer. . The experts said the bear killing the trainer was an accident. Ba. humbug. That bear savagely attacked and kill that man, It was no accident.. The owner of the bear said he could teach people about bears. That’s funny because he knows nothing about Grizzle bears. I’ll tell you one thing for sure . If he keeps getting close and in the cage with that bear, he’ll be the next person that that bear kills.

  7. Phillip Island Nature Parks
    Phillip Island Australia
    July 24, 2013, 7:59 pm

    Hi Judith – Emily is correct, a number of changes have been implemented at the main Penguin Parade in the last 10-15 years including a complete ban on photography and reduced lighting. The Penguin Parade is now operated by Phillip Island Nature Parks (since 1997) – a not-for-profit, self-funded organisation. All revenue raised through ecotourism is invested into wildlife and habitat protection, research and education activities.

    A housing estate that used to be in the colony has also been bought back and houses removed, which in turn has opened up more habitat, reduced the incidences of fire and domestic animal attacks. In the 1980s there were an estimated 18,000 penguins. Today that figure is 32,000.

    We thank all our visitors for contributing to the conservation of this special colony.

    Best wishes,

    Phillip Island Nature Parks

  8. HD Lee
    Jakarta & Melbourne
    July 25, 2013, 4:23 am

    been there in 2011. watch the little penguin parade. this becoming a large tourist object. big building, shops for penguin handicraft etc. nice to visit there and after all the penguin back to their nest in the evening, we back to Melbourne

  9. Mark
    Denver
    July 25, 2013, 9:27 am

    Judith, Why pass the responsibility on to others? What have you done to protect these penguins?

  10. Sarah Lingle
    Salem, OR
    July 25, 2013, 10:11 am

    I hope that was an astronomy and not an astrology lesson you got while looking at the stars.

  11. Al
    United States
    July 25, 2013, 3:42 pm

    @njoyeverymoment: Why would you want to “adopt” a creature that is perfectly capable of survival on its own ? If you like them so much, there must be some better ways to go about it!

  12. Alex Ullman
    Brooklyn, NY
    July 28, 2013, 3:46 pm

    What an informative and well written article! I particularly am grateful of the lively debate happening around environmental awareness- thanks for your corroboration of the penguin-friendly changes that have been made, Philip Island Nature Parks.

  13. Donna
    NJ
    August 21, 2013, 9:02 am

    I took this tour in May and can confirm that the Penguins were not disturbed in any way while exiting the ocean. We were not allowed to take photos and were told to speak softly. When leaving the beach we were told not to attempt to touch the Penguins even as they walked right next to us. We saw hundreds of Penguins! This was an experience I will never forget. I am not sure when I will ever get to return to Australia but if I do I will again visit Phillip Island. In the mean time I am going to inquire about donating.