As dusk descended over a stretch of untouched beach, a shiver of excitement rushed through the group of us assembled on platforms just a short distance away. Our eyes were fixed on the spot where the crashing waves met the shore, looking for movement within the water. As the anticipation grew higher the sun got lower, and just as it slipped behind the horizon we got our first glimpse of a tiny bobbing head. The penguin parade had begun.
The aptly-named Little Penguins (officially called Eudyptula minor) are responsible for bringing droves of visitors to Phillip Island, which is just two hours from Melbourne. Home to quaint villages, holiday homes and wildlife such as snakes, koalas and wallabies, Phillip Island has much to offer even those who only planned to see the penguins, which famously parade up the beach every night to sleep before heading back into the ocean to fish for food come daylight. A favourite stopover is Churchill Island, which has great ocean views and a stillness only found in the most untouched spots.
Many people choose to make a stop at the Heritage Farm, which provides a glimpse into the lives of the first European settlers in Australia. It’s still abuzz with activity, whether it’s the daily cow milking or sheep shearing demonstrations, watching the proud peacocks parade around the yard, wandering through the restored homestead and adjoining gardens or watching the red-necked wallabies.
The one thing you likely won’t find at the farm is a koala—but fortunately there’s a whole crew of them down the road at the Koala Conservation Centre. A short jaunt brings visitors to elevated boardwalks that wind through eucalyptus trees. Be sure to look up—way up!—and you’ll likely find one of the marsupials lazily clinging onto the thin branches, or snacking on leaves.
But regardless of how adorable those koalas are, the real show is just down the road at Phillip Island Nature Park. There, the landscape turned rugged, and long grass sheltered dozens and dozens of wild wallabies. They froze as our large bus slowly crept by, keeping their eyes trained on us intruders. A few who realized they had nothing to be afraid of eventually hopped away—boing, boing, boing!—with their long tails trailing behind them.
Continuing toward the jagged coastline, we passed numerous breeding boxes that some enterprising park rangers built to help shelter the penguins. When we made our way back up later that night, it was incredible to think about just how far the tiny birds travel to get to their shelters nearly every single day.
Eventually we reached the last stop before we’d be heading down to Summerland Beach for the evening, and pulled up to a spectacular viewpoint overlooking what’s called The Noobies. Home to Australian fur seals who pull themselves up onto the craggy rocks to avoid the huge waves battering the coastline, it’s pretty much the last stop before Antarctica. Visitors can either head down the boardwalk to get closer to the water, or use the telescopes up top to grab a good look at the seals. Just keep in mind it can be quite windy, so hold on to your hats!
After grabbing a quick dinner of fish and chips at the nearby cafeteria, it was finally time to go see some penguins. A short drive brought us to the entrance to the visitor’s centre, where this delightful sign greeted us:
Since the Little Penguins are only an average height of one-foot tall, it’s easy to see how some might accidently end up underfoot—or try to hitch a ride to Melbourne. As dusk was imminent, we hurried our way through the visitor’s centre which hosts a café, exhibits and a gift shop, and headed out to the viewing area. Phillip Island Nature Park has set up numerous areas depending on which package one pays for, and visitors willing to shell out a bit more cash can watch the penguin parade right on the beach with a ranger, or from a Sky Box where they can help with the nightly count. Most visitors opt for the viewing platforms along the beach, where the penguins waddle right by enroute to their burrows.
As we hunkered down on the benches and pulled our clothes tighter to keep out the cool wind, our eyes scanned the white waves washing up onto the shoreline. Children chattered excitedly, and within minutes we heard shrieks of delight—but this time, they weren’t contained to the younger set. It was the sound of Little Penguins! About five of them emerged out of the water, scoping out the beach for any sign of intruders. Once they were satisfied there weren’t any threats hidden by the cover of darkness, they tentatively made their way onto the sand.
From that point on, we were absolutely spellbound. Bird after bird waddled out, like toddlers taking their first steps. Hundreds and hundreds crossed the beach, meeting up with their mates and greeting them with an array of enthusiastic noises. Rangers say the penguins make about two dozen different sounds, with some being similar to purring, a baby crying, or even someone ‘rolling their R’s.’ It was incredible to see how devoted they are to each other, travelling in groups and patiently waiting when one of their friends got too tired and face-planted into the sand.
With around two-thousand penguins regularly crossing the beach, it took about 45 minutes for all of them to make their way out of the water. Some loitered in the bushes just a couple of feet in front of us, while others with a long journey ahead scurried up the sandy pathway toward their burrows, chattering the whole time.
Though the sight was enchanting we eventually had to tear ourselves away as darkness enveloped the beach. Fortunately, we had cute company. The penguins followed the dim lights of the boardwalk, granting us a chance to walk alongside them as they made their nightly pilgrimage into the dunes. While us wide-eyed visitors soaked in every second of the incredible experience before reluctantly heading back toward our vehicles, those unforgettable Little Penguins set off into the darkness. The brave little birds found their way home, for a quick respite from the unknown of the vast ocean before doing it all again tomorrow.
How to get there: Renting a vehicle is the easiest way to get to Phillip Island, and will give you the option of exploring more on your own. Alternatively, book a tour from Melbourne with a company such as Gray Line Tours, which operates a comfortable double-decker bus equipped with Wi-Fi. Their half-day tour also includes stops at quaint Churchill Island and the Koala Conservation Centre.
Top tip: Dress warm! It can be quite cold and windy on Phillip Island at night (even during summer) so be sure to bring a jacket and perhaps a blanket to sit on.
Need to know: Photography is absolutely prohibited during the penguin parade, as bright camera flashes could damage the penguins’ eyes. So don’t even think about snapping a shot, and instead sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Globe Guide travelled to Phillip Island as a guest of Visit Phillip Island. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.
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