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 Islands Information

Place: Phillip Island Australia

PENGUINS ON PARADE
Margaret Deefholts

The audience is hushed and expectant. A movement in the far shadows, and a tiny performer appears. There is a collective "ohhhh" from more than a thousand throats. The little guy throws a look of panic towards the tiered rows of spectators and hastily disappears. A minute later, two little figures emerge peering tentatively from side to side. This time the audience holds its breath. Five more. Seven. And then suddenly a whole cluster of small shapes emerge from the water's edge.

These are the Little Penguins - often called "fairy" penguins - of Australia. They weigh about a kilo and are roughly fifteen inches tall. They are flightless birds, but wonderful swimmers, often foraging for food as much as fifty miles off shore.

The Phillip Island Penguin Park is a two-hour drive south-east of Melbourne. Fronting on Bass Strait, Summerland Beach, despite its balmy name, it is cold, windy and dismally wet. The inhospitable weather doesn't deter the thousands of tourists from all over the world, who arrive by car and tour buses each evening around dusk to watch the Penguin Parade.

The Australians have done an admirable job of respecting the environmental needs of the Little Penguins. The sand dunes, pocked with penguin burrows, extend a long way past the parking lot, but visitors are channelled along elevated board-walks towards the beach. The lighting along the beach is directed away from the water and flash photography is strictly prohibited because it damages the birds' eyesight. Plain clothes officials mingle with the crowd, and confiscate cameras from offenders. Seeing this, a Canadian sitting next to me, exclaims with enormous relish "Right on!"

The beach is now filling up fast with waddling penguins all looking like small tipsy waiters. Behind us, from a network of burrows in the sand dunes, come the plaintive, squeaky cries of their offspring who are eagerly anticipating regurgitated fish for dinner. Spurred on by these frantic calls, mums and dads - soon an undulating army of well over three hundred - stretch their necks forward, and accelerate into a determined two-hundred-yard wobbly dash up the beach. They pass so close to me that I'm tempted to stroke their sleek heads and evening-dress tailcoats. Instead I merely make idiotic baby-crooning noises. One of them actually looks up at me, and I could swear he (or she!) winks derisively. This is, after all, what he (or she) puts up with every night.

The last penguins stagger in around 10.30 p.m. Perhaps they are dilatory socialites, who've hung around some watery 'dive' until the party wrapped up for the night. The benches on the beach empty quickly. I linger and kneel on the boardwalks to peer into the burrows. Many of these are tucked away within the dunes, but some are accessible enough to discern shadowy parents and offspring - and hear contented feeding noises.

I pull my rain-slicker close and sprint against the wind, into my rental car. I shall carry the memory home with me. But what tales, I wonder, will my roguishly winking penguin tell?

©Margaret Deefholts - Visit Margaret's website www.margaretdeefholts.com

Sidebar: There are several coach tours to Phillip Island from Melbourne. Typically they leave around 2.00 p.m. and return at 11.00. Allow yourself at least an hour to browse through the Visitors Information Centre at the Penguin Park. For more information on the Penguin Parade go to: http://www.phillipisland.net.au/penguinparade.html

However, it is worthwhile staying overnight and visiting the Koala Sanctuary, Seal Rock, The Nobbies and a host of unusual wildlife sanctuaries on Phillip Island. For comprehensive information on Phillip Island's attractions, accommodation etc. click on http://www.phillipisland.net.au/