“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.
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.
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.