We started off the day over breakfast with the son of my childhood friend who has lived down under for the last 35 years. Ben Russell is an actor, writer, and comedian who has a number of TV and podcasts to his credit. He spent five years in Chicago honing his craft with Second City Improv. He provided us with more things to see and do (this is a recurring theme), and I filled him in on some “dirt” from when his dad and I were kids.
We had signed up for the Phillip Island Penguin Parade tour knowing it would be a lot of “on and off the bus,” and it was. The tour bus picked us up just after noon (we thought they might have forgotten us, but it was just the victim of Melbourne’s struggle to upgrade its traffic infrastructure). We made stops at the Moonlit Animal Conservation Sanctuary, where we saw many of the indigenous creatures: wombats, kangaroos, wallabys (smaller version of the ‘roo), koalas, colorful birds, dingos, and lots of ducks. It was a typical summer day, about 24˚C (mid to upper 80s in Fahrenheit), so most of the animals were pretty lethargic in the shade.
We stopped at Brighton Beach to see the colorful “beach boxes,” basically little changing rooms modelled after England’s Brighton Beach. They have become quite trendy and go for about AUD$330,000. Make sure you have your designer swim togs available. We also stopped at the Phillip Island Motorbike Speedway, which was preparing for an international racing event in a couple of weeks (and more roos).
The ultimate destination, the Penguin Parade, was the big payoff for the day. Around dusk we arrived at the visitor center and broke off from the main group to join the ranger-guided tour for which Janelle signed us up. Stroke of brilliance by her! We were a group of ten and received headsets and binoculars for the parade. Plus, we sat in a prime viewing area, kind of like a luxury stadium box, while the other 1,000 spectators were farther down the beach.
Our ranger was knowledgeable and passionate about the penguins and their habits. They are the world’s smallest at about a foot tall and just over two pounds in weight. They are the only penguins with dark blue, rather than black, back feathers. That coupled with their white bellies camouflage them effectively at sea. They are most vulnerable while crossing the beach during their nightly parade, i.e., their emergence from the ocean just after dark and the waddle, sometimes up to two kilometers, back to their burrow or nesting box.
It was nearly dark. We heard some “hukking” and barking signaling that the little penguins were approaching shore. Then we saw the first “raft” of white bellies appear from the surf, about 30 of them. They made their way over the rocks and hit the sand like salmon swimming upstream. As they were crossing the sand, we saw more rafts appear, the largest being about 100 penguins. Then we followed the penguins as they left the beach and started down the path to their burrows and hungry chicks. Some had gorged themselves and were weighing in at twice their normal weight. They would waddle for a while, then rest, then move with the next group coming along. We even saw one penguin with a flipper tag, indicating it was at least nine years old. It was a truly remarkable experience!