Some weekends I like to get away from the city.
Especially for views like this:
Philip Island is located 140 km’s south-east from Melbourne. It’s only small at 26 km long and 9km wide but is a favourite holiday spot for many Victorians and is the second most popular tourist attraction in Australia (after the Great Barrier Reef). But I wasn’t here to spend the day watching motorsports or surfing at the beach, I was here to see some of the 32,000 Little Penguins that call the island home.
Philip Island Nature Park covers 1805 hectares of the island and is home to Little Penguins, seals, dolphins, koalas, wallabies, amongst many others. Penguin Parade is the only commercial venue in the world where you can see Little Penguins in their own environment and we had tickets to watch them come ashore at dusk. As we arrived on the island just after 1pm, we had plenty of time to explore the island before sundown.
First stop was lunch in the beachside town of Cowes. It’s pretty standard for an Australian country town – bakery, fish’n’chip shops, Chinese restaurant, pubs and tourist stores.
I love a good store name pun.
Next stop was the Koala Conservation Centre. I don’t like zoos but I can support this kind of wildlife centre that lets the animals live in their natural habitat out of cages and glass.
If you happen to visit the centre and are disappointed you can’t hold a koala – just remember you’re actually doing them a favour. Koalas on average are awake for 4 hours a day and sleep for the remaining 20 hours. This isn’t because they’re inherently lazy creatures or they get ‘high’ from eucalyptus leaves (their primary food source) but because eucalyptus leaves have such little energy content the amount they eat only gives them enough energy for 4 hours. By keeping koalas awake for longer than 4 hours they have to eat more food – the more they eat the more they grind down their teeth and if they have no teeth they can’t eat AND WILL DIE. Moral of the story – if you’re ever offered a koala to hold, ask they put it back for a nap. Also they have fierce claws and are known to scratch.
They are ridiculously cute though.
After spending an hour straining our necks koala-spotting in trees we headed to somewhere a little more friendly on the eyes. On the southern tip of the island is The Nobbies with spectacular coastal views overlooking Seal Rocks, home to Australia’s largest colony of fur seals. For a few dollars you can look through a viewfinder to see the seals up close and basking in the sun. For obvious reasons this is hard to capture on camera. The view however was not.
To get a little perspective the Nobbies overlook the Bass Strait which means the next stop from here is Tasmania!
The final stop pre-penguins was Woolamai Beach – it was a little too chilly for swimming or sunbaking but mighty tempting with miles of golden sand.
As the sun set it was penguin time! Did you know that one of the world’s largest government conservation programs took place on Philip Island? Until the 1980s most of the Summerland Peninsula was covered in over 180 houses, shops and motels – unfortunately this was the same area nine penguin colonies called home. By 1985 only one colony survived and they were predicted to be gone by 1997. The Victoria government undertook some drastic action and introduced The Penguin Plan including the Summerland Estate Buyback Program. For 20 years the government has repurchased every house, store and motel on the Summerland Peninsula and allowed them to be demolished to rehabilite the peninsula as a penguin habitat.
Driving around the Peninsula (only until sunset when all roads are blocked off to let the penguins safely wander back home) you’ll spot dozens of these little wooden penguin homes, an indication of the number of Little Penguins that call this island home.
The burrows start off looking like little boxes and end up like the picture below – covered in vegetation.
As for the highlight of my day – the Penguin Parade! At Summerland Beach you can watch some of the thousands of Little Penguins that return home every night waddle their way up the beach and to their burrows. As no cameras are allowed once the ‘parade’ starts (flash can damage their eyes), this is the only picture I was able to take. Summerland Beach has around 1000 penguins come ashore every night with a total of 6000 at beaches all around the Peninsula.
As the sun set we sat in the dark waiting and anxiously watching the surf. Just after 8pm, their expected arrival time, we heard distinct quacking in the surf and the first few penguins were spotted. They’re nervous little creatures. Rows of white bellies would pop up in the surf before the penguins would form a tight huddle and slowly shuffle forward debating whether or not to retreat to the safety of the surf. Once they’re ashore you’re able to follow a group as they waddle up the hills. Fenced in paths keep the humans closed in and let the penguins do their thing without the risk of someone trying to touch them. It was absolutely magical in the dark and any concerns about the on/off rain was quickly forgotten once the first penguins were spotted on the beach.
If you’re yet to venture beyond Melbourne and the Yarra Valley, put Philip Island on your ‘must see’ list asap.
A Good Day For A Waddle