I have to say seeing the Faerie Penguins at Phillip Island, Victoria, Australia was one of the highlights of my life.
I was disappointed when we arrived and picked up our tickets to learn there was absolutely no photography allowed. The flash on the camera can blind the penguins and we were about to witness a natural process by these marvelous wild creatures, in their own habitat, and the intent was to be silent, unobtrusive witnesses, not to startle or impact it in any way.
Of course there are always several people who feel the rules do not apply to them who were willing to damage the longevity of our privileged witnessing by insisting on getting a pic, taking on all manner of subterfuge to sneak a photo in despite the vigilant guides who did their best to enforce what should have been understood by everyone being as they tell you several times, they warn you several times, it is in all the writings, in the building you have to walk through, sign posted , and then enforced.
We sat at the edge of the sea and watched the night descend. The gulls kept us company and one lonely little dark wallaby that paraded back and forth along the beach seeming to want to horn in on the penguin show. Perhaps he was the warm up act. It was so lovely watching him as he disappeared into a lone silhouette amidst the rocks on the beach as we waited for the penguins to show.
The faerie penguins are the smallest of the penguins, only 30cm tall. They come out of the sea in the cover of darkness so that they are safe from basically the birds of prey that would be happy to grab a little penguin snack before calling it a day. They gather in groups called “rafts” before they race across the beach to find their nests in the grassy hills.
We were seated in bleachers set up against the seam of where the sand and rocks met the grass lands with tunnels between them like those football players disappear into on their way into the dressing room. The guides told us what to expect and warned us they were indeed wild animals and we were not to try and touch them no matter how close they came as they would not hesitate to bite us. We were also asked to be quiet and not make any sudden movements so as not to startle them.
I sat there looking out at the sea and reflecting on how awesome the whole thing was and feeling incredibly special to be there. The place was packed and several people sat on the sand in front of the bleachers making sure they stayed behind the wired fence.
Our eyes adjusted to the dark, aided with the lights high above us, and we strained to catch a glimpse of them as the sun completely retired. One woman behind me very importantly spoke of what we were to expect, instructing not only the people she had brought with her, but speaking so loudly as to inform the entire stand. I so admired her restraint in not having worn the actual uniform of the rangers with hand crocheted little badges matching theirs.
“There they are,” she announced and pointed off in a direction. “See them gathering there at the water’s edge?” Several people nodded and began pointing to each other. It rippled around the stands like the wave only much more importantly. People wanting to be credited with seeing them first, and in a stand some distance away, quickly pointed at the distinctly white breasts off standing near the water’s edge.
“Why aren’t they moving?” someone asked.
“They are waiting for everyone in their raft to arrive,” she importantly instructed as she shifted in her seat, the weight of her importance clearly a heavy burden to shoulder.
And then, one of the waiting penguins, spread it’s wings and lifted off into the sky and soared over the beach and across the waves.
The crowd was silent.
Someone quietly suggested, “I think those are seagulls.”
Only after two or three more joined the first did the woman concede, “yes, those are probably seagulls.”
But it didn’t matter because the penguins had arrived.
Little groups popped up all along the beach in front of us. They stood around and just as promised, the wind carried their little calls to us. They sound almost like ducks. It seemed to take forever as they stood at the water’s edge waiting, I suppose, for everyone to be accounted for. It is so easy to assign them human characteristics. Even if you could not see the clipboard, you could almost imagine them checking off all the names and making sure everyone was there. Then one of them surely shouted … “run for it!” And they were off. Moving, as the guide had said they would, in their raft, making sure if they were spotted from above, that they appeared to be a much larger animal.” They would run to the next grouping of rocks that offered some shelter. It was as if they gasped for breath, hugged one another, counted and recounted to make sure everyone was there and then repeated the process over and over again until they could make the big run into the tunnels and into the grasslands.
Each group did its own thing, with their own path and did not bother with what the others were doing. Only one group seemed to hit a snag when they made a run for it at the same time a seagull swooped towards them scattering them and sending them running off, every man for himself, back into the safety of the sea.
Some of the rafts passed so close you could have flicked your foot and touched one of the little penguins. I absolutely know, had it not been for the impossibility of getting through that crowd and up a few rows of the stands, that one of those little penguins wanted to come up and personally cuddle with me. I made room for him in my purse just in case. I have always wanted an elephant as a pet but am really torn now between an elephant or a faerie penguin.
And then we were invited to walk on the extensive board walks hovering above the grasslands and observe them continuing their journey to their nests. It was so comical to watch them breaking off in little groups and then some two by two and some alone. They are only about 30cm tall and their feet so short and they would waddle along and then get exhausted and lay down. It was just a gentle slope for us but seemed such a long walk for them.
We were told that they have to fatten up for when they moult their feathers each year. While they are growing their new feathers they are not water proof so they have to be able to last 17 days without food. Evidently they get quite grumpy. I would love to see that first time back to the water after 17 days without food and stuck on land. I wonder if they move any faster?
It was simply magical. One of the highlights of my life that I will always treasure. My daughter remarked it is kind of neat that they do not allow pictures. It makes the experience really personal to you because you cannot really share it effectively. It is all about the experience and what it was for you. That is very true.
I just consider it such a privilege to see wildlife in its natural habitat, to witness such an incredible show and realize how amazing this world is and that nature is worth every penny it takes to preserve it. I felt so moved, so completely touched to see these little creatures in the flesh. Thanks Australia for always reminding me how incredibly blessed I am to be able to live here.