Phillip Island – A Penguin Experience and So Much More
By Vanessa Wong
As an overseas student over three decades ago, a trip to Phillip Island to see the Little Penguins was a real eye-opener. The joy of watching these innately intelligent creatures find their way from the rocky beaches at twilight and then waddle their way to their burrows across the gentle hills with stomachs filled with food for their younglings is a real “David Attenborough” moment. Three decades later and with children of our own, the pilgrimage to Phillip Island is tinged with nostalgia and of a sense of wonder of how this peaceful island has morphed into a must-see international destination.
Our first stop over was Churchill Island, which is a short distance over a bridge from Phillip Island.
Churchill Island has a fascinating history that pre-dates European occupation with the land first trodden on by the Boonwurrung Aboriginal people centuries ago. Today, the island has some marvellous cottages and a homestead dating from 1872. On the day we attended, there was a delightful farmers market with local produce of exceptional quality. Jams, artisan bread (yummy!) and a splendid restaurant made for a pleasurable time. Our children hugely enjoyed the sheep shearing experience and other uniquely Australian activities.
Our next stop was a visit to the Antarctic Journey at the Nobbies, a joint venture between Philip Island Nature Parks and WWF-Australia. This has got to be one of the world’s best centres for a virtual journey into the extreme southern parts of planet Earth that most people would not see in their lifetimes. Life has a way of surviving in the most adverse of conditions, and this much is so apparent when wandering around the visual exhibits. The displays are highly innovative and so varied in their offering. Our kids liked the projection screens which put them in the same picture as swimming seals and penguins. Incredible. Another fascinating experience is the morphing images of Antarctica on super-size blocks that mimic icebergs, bringing the scale of Antarctica to life in a palpable way. There are some great Youtube clips showing the experience and are well worth watching. The experience is not just educational but plain fun.
On a glorious summer day, our family set sail on a highspeed boat ride that hugged the rugged Phillip Island coast to experience the spectacular coastline on our way to see a colony of fur seals. I have never seen fur seals before myself, and when we arrived, I was astounded with the sheer numbers of fur seals and the cacophony of yelping and haw-hawing from these delightful creatures. While the fur seals live an entirely wild existence, the sight of the many tourists that sail by each day completely unperturbed them as they go about their daily activities. It is fascinating to watch the interactions of fur seals with each other and how the hierarchy of deep-throated large to playful small happens in such dense colonies
Koala Conservation Centre
Our visit to the Koala Conservation Centre left a very positive impression of the meticulous care that the Philip Island Nature Parks paid to provide a centre with so much interesting information about Koala’s and their natural habitats. A smart set of ramps and boardwalks takes visitors around the tree tops of the Eucalyptus trees where sleepy Koalas are perched. The manner to which the boardwalks are configured around the woodland has been very well thought out offering unparalleled view lines to the Koalas. Apart from the adoring Koalas, visitors can experience close up many other animals native to Australia such as the echidnas and many varieties of flora and fauna. In one fascinating fact about Koalas is that Koalas are not seen to drink water like other animals because they get their moisture from the leaves upon which they eat each day. And Eucalyptus leaves are the foliage of evolutionary choice for these furry creatures.
On our visit to the penguin parade, large crowds descended on the ultra-modern centre ahead of Twilight and led by experienced park rangers to comfortable seating areas to await the arrival of the Little Penguins.
Times have changed. What might have been a small clutch people with daggy blankets sitting on the sand to wait around for The Arrival, is now incredibly well organised to cater for an international audience rugged up in the latest or not so latest fluorescent fashion wear. The information imparted by our guide, John about the imminent arrival of the Little Penguins was fantastic, and I learnt more about penguins at that moment before the sunset than at any time before.
Did you know, for example, that the total number of Little Penguins around Coastal Victoria is approximately 35,000? Biologists have been studying the numbers for years, and we have seen the population swell due to the rigorous land reclamation program around coastal Victoria to encourage the Little Penguins and natural wildlife generally to flourish.
We sat in a bunker which allows you to see the Little Penguins arrive onto the beach and up the sandy trails to their burrows at ground-level. The details of every twitch and every quirky tilt of a wing or nod of a head can be seen so close up, and it is clear that each penguin has its unique character and temperament. What is consistent with all the penguins is the sense of determination and focus that they all bring to coming off the beach (to avoid predators) and honing in by eyesight in dim light, to their individual burrows.
For more information about Philip Island, you are encouraged to visit www.penguins.org.au
The author wishes to thank Phillip Island Nature Parks for their kind assistance in arranging access to their many offerings during the visit.