It was at the end of a long day on Phillip Island that I found myself caught in what must be the world’s most delightful traffic snarl. The little penguins on one side of the path, sprightly even at that late hour in the evening, were behaving like proverbial deer in the headlights: Should we cross? Should we not? A step forward, two steps back. And so on they went.
Seeing that the penguins had frozen at the sight of so many people, we moved to a corner of the road to make ourselves as unobtrusive as possible. No good. More and more people—all making their way back to the main exit—had started gathering around, hushed and expectant, waiting for the penguins to move.
After a few restless moments, my ranger-guide, Ricardo Alves-Ferreira, looked to the penguins closest to us and snapped, “Come on, come on, move it.” As if on cue, they flat-footed their way to the other side, amid much aahing and oohing from the spectators.
A march to remember
All this was happening at the Penguin Parade, the popular tourist attraction on Phillip Island in the state of Victoria, not too far from its capital city, Melbourne. Penguins come home from the sea to roost here for the night. Of the 32,000 little penguins on Phillip island, over 4,000 have made burrows on Summerland Beach. On any given night, 2,000 or more of these wee penguins, just 33cm tall, waddle on to the beach just after sunset.
Phillip Island itself is small in size, just over 100 sq. km, with a population of less than 10,000. This jumps by four times in the summer months of December-March, around the time I visited with domestic and international visitors, heeding the siren song of the little penguins.
Once the home of the aboriginal Bunurong tribe, Phillip Island is now one of Victoria state’s not-so-hidden secret. My main reason for heading there early one morning from Melbourne was for the spectacular wildlife the compact island is home to.
“Take a waddle on the wild side,” declares the website of Phillip Island Nature Parks, which manages the Penguin Parade and other activities on the island. If this seems overly cutesy, then remember, this is penguins we are talking about, flapping and wobbling their way unsteadily, like human babies just learning to walk.
Friends who had been to this Penguin Parade earlier had called it one of the highlights of their Australia trip. After seeing these little happy feet waddling through the soft powdery sands of Summerland Beach, I can fully agree. Think of this as the UnCatwalk—these penguins are the very opposite of the cool and confident models on the runway (or even a big cat on the prowl), who are either completely oblivious of or indifferent to the presence of humans.
We were seated at the Penguin Plus viewing platform that afforded a vantage point to enjoy the spectacle from as close as possible. After half an hour of watching the penguins come ashore in groups and march past us towards their burrows, we then moved to the underground viewing area for a completely different experience.
Where earlier they had walked somewhat under our noses, here they were at eye level. It almost felt like I could reach out and touch them, but for those pesky clear glass windows. As I watched fascinated, one of them made for the window in front of me, attracted perhaps by the light, staring straight into my eyes for a moment.
It is no wonder that the ranger-guides here are completely devoted to these little chaps with their disarming cackles and waddles, and their conservation. Their numbers had reduced greatly, mainly due to reckless human activity and attacks from foxes and dogs.
Earlier that evening, I had gone on a boat tour of Phillip Island’s spectacular coastline, the aptly named “Wild Ocean EcoBoat Tour”—it was one of the choppiest boat rides of my life. The idea was to look for Australian fur seals and other assorted animal life in the waters. At the area known as Seal Rocks, we did spot a few fur seals, but they had decided to call it a day and were working on a tan under the mellow evening sun, perfectly immobile (they would fit right on Bondi Beach among the sun-worshippers, no questions asked).
But before the seals, our sea legs were put to the test by our bearded captain, who took us deep between rocky plateaus where the lashing waves were taller than the boat. “A bit bracing, eh?” he said wryly as I hung on for dear life, trying not to think of cold, watery graves. It was only when he decided that he had entertained himself enough that he turned back and sailed smoothly along the craggy outcrops and cliffs.
After the fur seals and penguins, it was time for the koalas to make an appearance. At the Koala Conservation Centre, we picked the easy boardwalk trail, keeping our necks craned for koalas on treetops.
The first one was easy to spot, practically as soon as I entered the wooded area. There he was, fast asleep, clinging to a thin branch. After I spent a few tough moments trying to get a clear front shot, he finally opened his eyes. And appearing to see us down below, he turned his face away like a petulant child refusing to pose for photos.
Further on, where the treetop boardwalk took me almost face-to-face with the fauna, another was wide awake, looking for lunch. And that was how I was given a fascinating glimpse into his life, as he jumped between trees and scrambled along a narrow branch before settling down in front of one with fresh eucalyptus shoots. In Australia’s aboriginal language, the word koala means “no water”—and sure enough, these furry animals are so adapted to local climatic conditions that they can stay alive in extremely dry conditions.
Watching the koala tuck into its lunch, I could easily see why they are often—and incorrectly—referred to as koala bears. They have no biological connection with the bear species but all that furry and cuddly mass reminds people of teddy bears. Lunch done, he wedged himself into a nook in the tree and went to sleep in a matter of seconds. That’s the other thing about these creatures—they can fall asleep at practically any spot on tall trees, seemingly attached by means of an invisible Velcro patch.
For a brief moment earlier, I had wondered if the little penguins and I were kindred spirits. Then I felt the fur seals were my spirit animal; think of all the lounging under the sun while ignoring people. But as I made eyes at the koalas, watching them look adorable even as they did absolutely nothing, I knew I had found my zen master.
Fly to Melbourne from Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru. Phillip Island is just 140km away.
Most people stay on the main island of Cowes. I stayed at The Waves Apartments, with an extra bedroom and a small kitchenette, and great sea views—ideal if you are travelling with family (Thewaves.com.au).
Most tourist attractions have their own cafés. Otherwise, the best choices are on Cowes. Start your day at the quirky Madcowes Café (Madcowescafe.com.au) and end with hearty Italian fare at the family-managed Pino’s Trattoria (Pinostrattoria.com.au).