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Phillip Island Penguins on Parade
The Penguin Parade is on Summerland Beach, Phillip Island, which is a 90 minute drive from the the city of Melbourne, in Victoria, Australia.
On the way, you can visit other fascinating places within the National Parks - the Churchill Island Heritage Farm and a Koala Conservation Centre. And there’s a chance to view the Nobbies, a spectacular headland and rock formation, and the habitat of hundreds of seals.
Twenty minutes and counting! It would soon be sunset.
We waited patiently, nearly two hundred humans sitting in tiered, organised rows on a beach, all being as quiet as possible, but our whispered conversations giving away our heritage – British and numerous other European nationalities, people from the Indian sub continent, China and the Far East and, of course, Australians.
Hundreds of pairs of eyes fixed expectantly on the near horizon as the sun dipped, casting a shadow on the dunes at the far end of the bay. We sat silently as the evening crept across the sand until the beach was lit only by faint starlight, and a couple of dim spotlights, just barely illuminating the shoreline. Waves crashing on the sand the only sound as darkness fell.
Suddenly a ripple of excitement began to grow in the crowd, like a Mexican Wave, only much, much quieter. Then - audible gasps in the quiet evening air.
Here they come!
First in ones and twos surfing expertly in on a wave and then, apprehensive and unsure, some immediately diving back into the ocean before braving the beach a second time.
'OOhs' and 'Aahs' from the crowd, quiet expressions of awe.
It was a little hard to spot them in the half light but then they began to emerge from the waves in larger groups - the ‘rafts’ in which they had fished and swum for days in the Bass Strait off the coast of Australia. At last, after an hour of waiting, the Phillip Island Penguin Parade was underway.
Not that these wild Fairy Penguins, the tiniest of the 17 known varieties of penguin, know that they are part of a world famous phenomenon. They instinctively come back to this remote beach south of Melbourne every year, to lay their eggs and raise their chicks. Their daily fishing trips ending each evening on cue, at sunset.
I doubt they were unaware of the humans watching them as they moved from the ocean, onto the beach and up into the dunes where their babies were already beginning to call out to them. Some seemed to glance in our general direction but, perhaps more concerned about natural predators, they fixed on their goal - the undergrowth where they had months before made their burrows and laid their eggs.
In each group, a lead penguin seemed to act as lookout, landing on the shoreline first to check out any dangers before the rest of the raft emerged from the surf and followed gingerly up the beach, as quickly as their tiny legs would carry them. Marching - no, more like waddling - like a group of celebrities dressed up in tuxedos for a night out on the red carpet. Little they might be but the Fairy Penguin looks just as a penguin should. Black and white and ever so smart!
One or two of the birds, maybe unused to the whole experience and perhaps being a little premature in their excitement, leapt from the ocean, landed on the wet sand, stopped, looked around and then dived right back into the waves. Perhaps waiting for a bigger crowd before venturing finally onto the beach. There's safety in numbers!
Children giggled, parents 'sshh'd' them. And remarkably for a large group of humans we all managed to remain extremely quiet, while around us, as the parent penguins made their way up the beach, the sound of chirping from the dunes grew louder and louder.
High pitched cheeping filled the night air as the chicks began calling out for the food which their parents were bringing with them after the day's fishing expedition.
It's an amazing fact but, as the guide informed us before evening fell and the Penguin Parade began, each parent knows exactly where they are going and can recognise the call of their own chicks! So, as we watched, the tiny black and white creatures waddled up the beach into the undergrowth – headed with determination for their ‘home’ burrows in the dunes where their babies awaited them.
As they moved up and off the sand so did the humans. From strategically placed and hardly lit wooden boardwalks, we heard the birds socialising below us - greeting, singing to and preening each other and by some miracle of nature, each penguin managing to find its own offspring out of the thousands in the dunes and undergrowth above the beach. Occasionally we caught a glimpse of a reunion - a tiny parent arriving at its burrow to be greeted with a cacophony of sound from it's even tinier baby. While there's always, of course, a possibility of one or two chicks remaining unclaimed, their hopeful but helpless calls to a mum or dad who will not come again a reminder of the perils of nature and of the sea.
And still we remained inhumanly quiet and reserved as we, finally, walked in near silence away from the beach, along the platforms and boardwalks, leaving the birds to the night. It felt like a sacred space somehow, like a church where the atmosphere is so awesome you dare not break the silence.
- The taking of photographs or film/video is not allowed during the Penguin Parade
- A shorter first version of this article by Cathy Le Feuvre was published in the Jersey Now magazine in July 2009