They waddle forwards and then backwards again nervously, unsure if any birds of prey still linger. And suddenly, as if reacting to a starter’s gun, they’re off, storming the open stretch of dangerous sand like a D-Day landing party, moving in groups of 10 or 20 for safety.
Within a minute, they’re right by our sides and it’s party time. The little penguins, which, at under 50cm of charismatic cuteness, are the world’s smallest, have made it. They’ve survived the daily commute one more time and now stand together, preening, chatting and seemingly oblivious to us gawping at them like idiots from just a metre or two away – although I’m guessing there’s one or two penguin posers secretly loving it.
Every few minutes, the group swells, another and then another platoon arriving, out of breath and jubilant, to join the nightly celebrations. Once fully preened and gossiped out, they begin the waddle back to their respective homes.
Strolling along the network of boardwalks I follow their excited chatter, joining them for the final leg as the night fills with the sounds of hot pingu loving and babies demanding regurgitated fish. I can’t deny the fact I’ve always been a sucker for a cute bird, but this is something else. With a population of around 70,000 little penguins – 6,000 of which are in the penguin parade area – the Summerland Peninsula hosts one of the biggest penguin colonies on the planet. And it shows.
Black and white bundles of feathers and fluff are everywhere I look. I see literally hundreds of them, jumping in holes, squawking in bushes or simply waddling contentedly down the track, while tourists “ooo” and “ahhh” like schoolgirls on every side. When I eventually dragging myself away, there’s only one thought on my mind, “I want a penguin”.
I’m on Phillip Island which, less than a couple of hours drive from Melbourne, is one of the most popular getaways from the Victorian capital. The island’s unbearably cute black and white locals are clearly its main draw. However, there’s much, much more to this 26km-long island.
My first port of call on arrival is to head up to the island’s northern tip and have a gander at the enticingly named Nobbies. As I walking around the jagged rocks as waves dramatically crash into the shore as though they’ve been eagerly dreaming of the moment for 1,000km – and they probably have – walls of spray are created while blowholes er, blow, whichever way I look.
Sealing the deal
People made nervous by Hitchcock films should probably avoid the area, as the skies are filled with birds. Crested terns, hooded plovers, short-tailed shearwate – they are just three of the winged creatures that apparently love the area.
And just off the shore lie the jutting rocks which are the Nobbies themselves. These slabs of stone rising from the frothy waters are where 25,000 fur seals call home, giving birth to over 5,000 pups a year.
The 25,000 seals all jostling for space on this tiny corner of this small Victorian island are actually a quarter of the entire Australian fur seal population. This is great. I mean, seals, what’s not to love? Well, there’s one thing. Wherever you get lots of seals, you get big sharks. And wherever you get crazy big numbers of seals, you get crazy big sharks, which kind of explains why some of the biggest Great Whites ever caught have been caught off Phillip Island.
Again, that’s kinda cool. But right now I’m finding it a very long way from cool. The reason? I’m pulling on my sexy seal-like wetsuit for a surf lesson. Meeting my instructor Ash, I’m quick to raise my concerns.
“Ah, don’t worry,” he quickly reassures me. “The sharks are too big to worry about us.”
“Great”, I think, taking a final fond look at my arms and legs. Very reassuring.
“But seriously,” Ash continues, “they’re definitely out there, but I’ve never seen one surfing here in all my years.”
Man against beast
And so, wetsuits donned and a few right hooks to a shark nose mentally rehearsed, we take to the water. Within a surprisingly short time, I’ve completely forgotten about looking for fins as I concentrate on keeping my footing on the longboard, whooping with joy every time I manage to briefly stay up and ride a wave.
After a few hours, I’m exhilarated, hooked and still alive, but I’m exhausted, so crawl out of the water, all limbs still attached. By now, however, I’ve built myself up a serious hunger and so go in search of food.
I stroll into the Rhyll Trout and Bush Tucker Farm intent on catching my lunch. I grab a rod, get shown how to put
the bait on and cast it, before sitting back to bask in the sun. Half-an-hour later and nothing has happened. At least
I don’t think it has. I mean, how hard does a fish pull? Maybe I missed it. But then suddenly, I really know it’s on. Some water-sucking monster is trying to steal my rod!
I get to work and within a minute or so he’s on the shore, my very own 450g trout. Okay, maybe not the giant I’d imagined, but the feeling of catching my first fish is strangely exciting. Better yet, I take it straight to the kitchen and within half an hour it’s been baked with Kakadu plum, lime and chilli. It’s truly delicious, even if I do get disturbingly hyped about eating my own kill for the first time.
A thousand pictures later, I leave the and head back to Melbourne, amazed that so much could be crammed into one tiny island so close to the city.