The Penguin Parade (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Fri, 25 Jan 2008

The Penguin Parade

I'll just start with the summary: the Penguin Parade is completely amazing.

Phillips Island, a couple hours' drive south of Melbourne, is home to a colony of little penguins. (That's the species name, not just a descriptive adjective, though it does describe them: they're only about a foot tall.)

Little penguins nest in burrows in the rolling dune terrain above the beach. They swim many miles out into the ocean on hunting trips, but when they've eaten their fill, they come back to their burrows on the island. They prefer to do this at dusk, to avoid diurnal predators like hawks. So every night just after sunset, the penguins who have been out hunting need to cross the beach and walk/run/waddle to their burrows.

They're so regular about this that it has become a major tourist attraction: there's a permanent viewing area where hordes of tourists can watch the penguins on their daily journey. Wooden boardwalks over the dunes. Floodlights so people can see the penguins better (the penguins don't seem to mind). Tickets are sold, and there are scads of bus tours from Melbourne. I mean, there are a lot of bus tours; you can throw your back out just hefting a stack of all the brochures from all the tour companies.

I was tempted to go the tour route. They take care of all that driving-on-the-left stuff and figuring out where to go, and the price isn't all that high when you compare it to car rental and gas and ticket prices. But ... reading about the Parade I kept seeing comments like "Stay a bit later and you'll get to see more" ... if the Parade actually turned out to be something cool, I didn't want to be shooed out early because the bus driver wanted to leave. Better to have my own transportation and a room on the island.

So there I was, sitting on a concrete step at sunset in the chill ocean wind. (The smarter folk stayed in the comfy warm visitor center until past sunset.) Silver gulls showed off their soaring skills inches above our heads, buzzing the crowd looking for dropped bits of food. Kids jostled and fiddled. (The little boy from the family in front of me on the steps wanted to play with the little foam Tux Linux penguin hanging on my backpack.)

(I imagined the penguins, swimming around there in the ocean before us, chatting with each other: "Every night, you can see thousands of humans gathered on this beach. No penguin knows why they all gather here and not at other beaches. But it's an amazing show, seeing all those humans together. You just have to walk a little way up the beach to see them.")

As the sky darkned and stars started to appear, a ranger stepped forward and told us a little about the penguins and what we'd be seeing. Then they played recorded messages in Japanese and Chinese (though I heard more European languages than Asiatic in the crowd that night). I didn't try to estimate the crowd. I heard an estimate of two thousand, but I doubt it was anywhere near that high.

We were there at a good time, the ranger told us. There were lots of chicks in the burrows, old enough that the parents were kept busy foraging. That means lots of penguins crossing the beach.

But crossing the beach is a dangerous trip for a foot-tall penguin, even if they wait until after sunset. So penguins hang out in the shallows until there are enough of them; then they all land together and make their way inland as a group.

The floodlights came on, but it was another ten minutes or so before we saw the first penguins. A group of maybe ten tiny figures stood on the rocks, obviously trying to work up the courage to proceed. They'd move a few feet, to the next rock, then stop for a while, working up the nerve for the next move.

Before long there was another, larger group assembling off to the left, and then a third group. Group one finally made it off the rocks and started heading for the dunes -- toward the special boardwalk for the people who bought the $60 "Penguin Plus" tickets. We proles in the cheap seats still had plenty to watch, though, as a fourth and fifth group began to assemble. Pretty soon there were groups of tiny penguins all over the beach making their waddling way toward the dunes.

In the pre-parade talk, the ranger had told us that a lot of the action is up in the dunes, the wooden boardwalks we'd taken on our way down from the visitors center. Watch several groups cross the beach, he said, but then go back up to the boardwalks and you'll see plenty of action up there too. Indeed: now I understood the point of the raised boardwalks, as we watched determined penguins following trails right beneath our feet. Burrows were everywhere: a lot of the burrows were just a few feet from a floodlit boardwalk filled with people.

The night filled with the warbling cries of little penguins searching for a partner, chick or parent. A reunited pair would sing a duet, caressing each other with their flippers and bills. Other times, a penguin would climb to the wrong burrow, to be driven off by the penguin already waiting there. Some penguins preferred mansions in the hills, climbing determinedly up near-vertical gully walls to reach a high burrow; others stayed down in the easier-to-reach lowland slums.

There were other animals active besides penguins. As soon as darkness fell, dark long-winged birds began flying by: short-tailed shearwaters, the ranger told me. And in the darkness of the dunes, penguins weren't the only animals moving between burrows: quite a few rabbits (two or three times the size of the penguins) were there as well.

And the penguins kept coming. An hour passed, and still the waves of ten, twelve, fifteen penguins at a time struggled their way up the dunes. Sometimes a straggler would collapse, exhausted, and just lie there in the sand until the next group came along. Sometimes a penguin would get a burst of energy and run to catch up to the group ahead of them. A second hour passed, with no letup in the supply of penguins. There must be thousands of them.

By about 11:15, the rangers started turning off the floodlights and gently nudging people up the boardwalks. They weren't pushy about it, but you could tell they wished we'd leave so they could go home. There were only a few dozen of us spectators left by then, and a kangaroo had wandered in from somewhere to watch the show. (I'd had to stop for another kangaroo on the road on the way up to the show. Very cool.)

A ranger answered a few last questions as we clustered on the concrete pad next to the visitor's center. Another ranger nudged two dawdling spectators to move to one side: "Those penguins there are waiting for you to get out of the way so they can cross." Indeed, as soon as the two gents moved aside, one penguin left the group and waddled decisively across the tarmac and into the dunes across the way.

Did I mention that the whole experience was completely amazing?

I was one of the last to leave, but I could easily have stayed for yet another hour, watching soap opera stories of partners reunited, chicks found and fed, wanderers lost and then found.

The next morning I drove out to "The Nobbies", the trail at the end of the road past the Penguin Parade. Looking with new eyes, I realized that the hill where the lookout stood, maybe 1500 feet above the water, was peppered with penguin burrows. Indeed, as I started down the trail I could see that some of the burrows were occupied.

The Penguin Parade was a magical experience. But the most amazing thing about it is that it isn't anything unusual. This happens every night. It's not the same penguins from one night to the next: they'll go hunting for several days or a week, come back to land, then stay that long in the burrow before going out again. But the thousands of penguins I saw ... there wasn't anything special about the night I was there. You can go out there any night of the year and see thousands of penguins swimming up out of the water, landing on the beach and marching past you to their burrows. Nothing special ... happens every night.

Completely amazing.

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[ 13:16 Jan 25, 2008    More travel/melbourne08 | permalink to this entry ]