Thursday, August 7, 2003


Your life has become, perhaps, objectively sad when you can sit chuckling in the freezing dark on concrete steps at a beach going – “man, this is so bloggable”.

Nonetheless, that’s what I did Sunday night with some of the Melbourne-based Canberra diaspora. We’d gone penguin watching at Phillip Island. (We’d also had a wine tasting and “refreshment platters” pit stop along the way.) Phillip Island has a colony of “little penguins”, the world’s smallest penguins – most no bigger than my shoe, or a little bigger than my hands.

Can I just say, you have not seen funny until you’ve seen a rumble in the penguin colony. A penguin-on-penguin mugging three feet from your face. There’s no solidarity under those little tuxedos, just the ruthless drive to be alpha-penguin by next breeding season. I’ll come back to that, though.

There’s a big visitors’ centre at the “penguin parade”, and then some rather lovely boardwalks carrying you above the nesting grounds out to the beachside concrete steps. You watch the penguins arrive from the sea for an hour, then wander back over the boardwalk through the colony.

I say “steps”, but it’s more like amphitheatre seating, except facing the dark sea. The penguins arrive at sunset to a beach full of tourists and blazing lights.

“If they only come in at sunset,” I said, “don’t the lights confuse them?”

“People have been penguin watching here for years,” said Beth, “they’ve had time to get used to it.”

Someone assumed a penguin voice:

“Man, I’ve been floating out here for days, I don’t care about the lights – I’m going in!”

They’re nervous getting out of the water, as on the beach they’re vulnerable to sea eagle attacks. We speculated at to whether the writhing, wailing mass of child-dom assembled on steps would be scarred for life if a sea eagle descend on the penguins.

The penguins come ashore in “rafts”, very seldom alone. At the high water mark, they seem easily bowled off their little feet by the waves. Also, like the RSPCA wombat, they never cross the beach in one go. There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, with little forays back into the ocean.

Penguin voices: “Sod this, it was warmer in the water!”


“Wait a minute … where’s Beryl?”

They seem to hop more than waddle on their little, little legs, bobbing over the little rocks in their path. Off the beach they split up to follow penguin tracks back to their burrows – or in one case, the tracks of a 4-wheel motorbike back to the fence-line at visitors’ centre.

If not for their white bellies, they would have been quite hard to see once scattered into the undergrowth.

We saw one standing in a little penguin-sized clearing, then another hurdling tiny bushes towards him. A third came out from behind him, waddling along the penguin-track. Suddenly they were hooting and chest-butting and flipper-slapping: penguin fight!

Our night was then complete, though not without its sinister moments. On the way out I noticed penguins gathered by the visitors’ centre fence, undeterred by humans, watching, motionless.

“It’s like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds … but with teeny things in formal wear.”

In the car park a sign read:


“… Oh, for penguins!” said one friend. “You can tell I’m from Northern Ireland.”

I decided not to share my vision of bomb-sniffing penguins.

The 90-minute drive home proved that I can indeed assemble the ultimate road-trip cassette.

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