The Phillip Island Penguin Charade

A couple of penguins on parade at Phillip Island (photo courtesy of wikimedia).

A couple of penguins on parade at Phillip Island (photo courtesy of wikimedia).

I told my family we should drive to the bottom of Australia and spend several days on Phillip Island mainly because of its star attraction: the Penguin Parade. I had this idea that we would stroll along a beach at sunset and watch waves of hundreds of penguins waddle up to burrow with their babies in the sand in quite possibly the most adorable display of loyalty and domesticity.

Predictably, Colly and Kyle said, “That’s sooooooooo cute!”

So we drove 90 minutes south of Melbourne, crossed a causeway and discovered an island about 16 miles long and 6 miles wide. It’s covered with grassy pastures, gum tree stands, a lot of roads used for racing, and a couple of villages with shops and restaurants overlooking the beach. The island has been a tourist getaway for over a century, and for at least half that time it’s been famous for grand prix car and motorcycle races. (Since we arrived only days before the Superbike World Championship, we saw and heard many men wearing padded leather pants who gunned their bullet bikes after every intersection.)

We got our first lesson on the penguins as soon as we checked into a cabin near the town of Cowes. The manager asked if we wanted to buy the 3-Park Pass at a discount. The what? The pass that gets you into the Penguin Parade, Koala Conservation Centre and Churchill Island. I had never heard of Churchill Island and wanted to say, “But I just got to this island; why would I want a ticket to another one?” Instead, Morgan and I quickly researched the price of the Penguin Parade as the reality sunk in we were foolish to think a well-publicized encounter with nature would be free.

We could get tickets to a Penguin Plus Viewing Platform, which includes access to “a high penguin traffic area” plus a drink voucher; a Penguin Sky Box so we could be in an elevated tower and avoid the sand altogether; or an Ultimate Penguin Tour so we could go farther down the beach and talk to a ranger. In the end, we chose the 3-Park Pass Family Discount ($105.75), which included the Penguin Basic Package: access to a concrete amphitheater on the beach from which we could watch the penguins — but no walking around or picture taking allowed.

On the night we decided to view the Penguin Parade, we rushed dinner and headed to the beach because the instructions said we needed to arrive an hour before the penguins’ arrival — which is at sunset, right? — and we wanted to secure a prime viewing spot. We followed the “This Way to the World-Famous Penguin Parade” signs posted at virtually every intersection and arrived at a sprawling visitors’ complex with tour buses parked outside.

The first penguins we saw at the Phillip Island Penguin Parade.

The first penguins we saw at the Phillip Island Penguin Parade.

The visitors’ center was a holding cell devoted more to hawking merchandise and fast food than to environmental education about the penguins. I wasn’t surprised to see T-shirts and stuffed penguins for sale — but why were so many people lined up to get their picture taken in front of a green screen? It turned out to be a photo opportunity to get their face superimposed on a picture of the penguins.

Finally, a ranger unlocked a giant doorway to the tiered concrete seats facing the beach. At this point it was around 7:35 p.m. and we heard the ranger tell another family that the first penguins should show “in about an hour,” after darkness had fallen.

What happened over the next hour and a half could have been filmed as a remake of Waiting for Godot. Everyone watched the sunset with impatience more than appreciation and talked about the penguins as if we knew and cared about them even though we had never seen them. Everyone watched a flock of seagulls playfully chase the waves but didn’t care because we had come to watch the penguins chase the waves. Everyone stared at the sand and water as though in a museum and obeyed the “you can look but don’t touch” rule.

An IPhone snapshot of the crowd waiting for the penguins, about an hour before they showed up.

An iPhone snapshot of the crowd waiting for the penguins, about an hour before they showed up.

I felt a grudging admiration for the marketing genius who had figured out a way to make hundreds of people show up every night and pay to enter a visitors’ center, where they spend more money, and then to sit on a cordoned-off stretch of beach when miles of coastline are free and open on either side — all to observe the behavior of flightless birds that are admittedly remarkable, but really, what makes the penguins more remarkable and more adorable than the other spectacular species of waterfowl and marine mammals we’ve seen along the coast? If the penguins lost their status as a five-star tourist attraction and we couldn’t buy a ticket to see them or the souvenirs to remember them, how many of us would care to make this pilgrimage?

Accepting the absurdity of the situation and my role in it helped me warm up to it, even though I was shivering from the cold. Colly and Kyle were freezing, so they let me cradle them in my arms and rub their legs. “I’m miserable!!!” Colly moaned, but she was half-laughing as she said it.

Cradling Colly on the beach while waiting for the parade to start.

Cradling Colly on the beach while waiting for the parade to start.

When the beach grew dark at around 8:30, giant floodlights came on to spotlight the sand and waves. Still no penguins.  Then, around 8:50, a gasp went up and fingers pointed toward the water — there was one! A barely discernible penguin washed ashore, stood and looked straight at the audience, then flipped around and disappeared into the waves. Hmm, I thought, would you call that flipping the bird?

More minutes passed. Then a second penguin came on shore, took a few tentative steps and also ran back into the water.

I optimistically told the kids that the penguins would come the way popcorn pops — a few at first, then all at once. But it never happened like that. Instead, they came in a trickle: a group of five or ten would gather together, get the gumption to get out of the water, and then walk across the sand to the bushy area where they burrow.

Morgan and I simultaneously decided it was time to go. We told the kids in our most upbeat voice, “Okay! There they are! Show’s over!” Colly and Kyle, sleepy and cold, were eager to leave. We spotted several penguins near the path on the walk back to the visitors’ center, which gave us the best view of their behavior and was a treat to see, but I kept hearing a little voice in my head that said, Seen one penguin, seen ’em all.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The kicker is that a day or two later, we had a much better penguin encounter at another Phillip Island attraction called The Nobbies, which is a point of coastline where waves crash against rocks.

The Nobbies off Phillip Island

The Nobbies off Phillip Island

The Nobbies area is pretty, to be sure, but there’s nothing particularly unusual about it. It pales in comparison to any slice of New Zealand’s West Coast. You might conclude from the soaring Nobbies visitors’ center perched at the trailhead, however, that we were about to encounter something as spellbinding as Ayers Rock.

I surveyed the tour buses, the stuffed animals and ice creams for sale, and the inevitable pressed-penny machine and asked Morgan, “What’s with the need to commercialize nature and put a giant visitors’ center at the entrance to anything remotely scenic?”

“Well you know,” he said, “it must not be worth visiting if there’s not a visitors’ center.”

We took a short hike to admire the coastline and began to notice some telltale burrows of little penguins.  I began feeling less jaded and more genuinely impressed when I realized that many of the penguins choose to come ashore not on the beach where the audience waits with bated breath, but all the way up on these remote rocky cliffs.

I felt a new respect for the little boogers — they can’t fly, but they sure can hike! What’s more, they discovered an ideal place to shelter, as if to play a joke on us tourists: under the walkway, out of sight.

We got on our bellies to peer under and found a family of penguins huddled peacefully together, all snuggly and fluffy from molting. I admit, they were darn cute, and I felt a little guilty for invading their space. We let them be and thoroughly enjoyed watching the sunset.

We got on our bellies and found a cache of penguins in this unexpected place.

We got on our bellies and found a cache of penguins in this unexpected place.

There’s more to tell from Phillip Island, and I promise the next post will describe some of what’s sweet there as well as what’s sour.

One of the penguins that skipped the parade and went to The Nobbies instead.

One of the penguins that skipped the parade and went to The Nobbies instead.

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