Phillip Island, about an hour and a half south of Melbourne, is infamous for penguin research and the “Penguin Parade“. It’s one of the few places in the world where thousands of Little Penguins, the smallest penguin species in the world, waddle up the beach shores at dusk to return to their inland burrows after a hard day at sea. It’s also one of the few places in the world that has turned the penguins into quite the commercial operation. It’s one of Australia’s top tourist attractions and the park boasts nearly half a million visitors every year. (BTW, the photos below are courtesy of Wikipedia – the Penguin Parade doesn’t allow photography).
My heart sank when I called and tickets were sold out. It’s recommended to book a few weeks ahead of time. However, tickets for more premium tours were still available, so instead of a $21 ticket for general admission, I splurged on a $72 ticket for the Private Penguin Experience. 10 of us would get our own personal penguin ranger, front-row seats on the beach area, and exclusive use of the premium boardwalk penguin viewing area. Hey, it’s a one time experience, right?
I arrived at 6:30 to check out the facilities and though the gift shop IS pretty kitschy, it’s filled with cute penguin merchandise and the prices aren’t too bad. You can even mail a postcard from there and it gets a special penguin stamp. I knew my mom would love it so I mailed her a few. The information exhibit has a great short film and around the corner are several penguin burrows, built into the building with glass tops. They were even occupied with live parent penguins and chicks in various stages of development. Visiting early is a bonus – no crowds!
At 7:30 while everyone else was cuing up like cattle and fighting to get prime outdoor bleacher positioning, I was drinking a hot chocolate and meeting my penguin ranger tour guide. He outfitted us with stadium chairs, binoculars, and a headset so we could hear his commentary throughout the night. We received a personal tour through the exhibit and then 20 minutes before the penguins’ estimated arrival, our ranger walked us straight down to the front of the beach. I must say, I felt a little guilty being so privileged as to walk right past everyone in the grandstands and take a seat front and center, but hey, this was $70 worth of penguin royalty!
A few minutes passed and there was a dramatic gasp from the crowd. Our ranger pointed out a lone penguin dashing across the sand to the safety of the rocks. They usually crowd into groups and wait for the cover of darkness, so seeing this one making a break for it was entertaining and unusual. Over the next 20 minutes, we watched as groups of penguins popped out of the water, huddled together, and made their way across the beach. Some were in small groups of only 4-5 while others were in groups of hundreds. Sometimes they would head straight for their inland burrows, other times they would hang out on the beach, having a sort of happy hour while preening each other.
We were even entertained by the antics of the short-tailed shearwater, a migratory seabird that travels from Alaska every summer to feed on krill and use abandoned penguin burrows to raise their chicks. They do nothing with grace – oftentimes crash-landing into the beach with a spectacular somersault. The binoculars were a huge bonus since you couldn’t see the shearwater with the naked eye. And the closest any of the penguins passed us was maybe 10-15 feet. Most were visible, but further down the beach.
The best part of the evening was our visit to the boardwalks, where the penguins walk literally inches from you on their journey inland. Part of the boardwalk near the ocean where the vast majority of penguins come in is reserved for the premium tours, so we sat there for 20 minutes or more just watching the little guys walk past. At the 50-min mark, the staff turns off the floodlights on the beach, the crowds disperse, and the penguins are left in silence.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect at the Penguin Parade. I’ve heard it described as the “most anti-climactic way to get thousands of people to huddle together in the cold” to the “most amazing thing I’ve ever seen”. Of course you worry about the impact something like this makes on the penguins, but honestly, their antics seemed a bit like grandstanding and they hardly appeared bothered by the spectacle of it all. The only rule is no photography or video, which is why I have no adorable penguin photos. Lots of rangers are present to oversee the crowds and make sure the penguins are safe. It’s nice to see Australia treat it’s wildlife and environment so well. The night I visited the Penguin Parade they drew records numbers for the year: nearly 2,000 penguins!
For me, the Penguin Parade was worth every penny and an experience not to be missed. It’s not every day you get to stroll along, barely inches from such cute little animals. The information the facility provided was exceptional and it’s certainly one of the top wildlife viewing experiences I’ve had. If you ever find yourself in Melbourne, you must make the trip. And the premium tour might be a bit pricey, but it’s completely worthwhile!
I spent a total of three days on Philip Island and it’s an amazing place. You can drive a few kilometers past the Penguin Parade to the Nobbies, a headland on the southwest point of the island with a fantastic view of the Bass Strait, as well as an information center and cafe. The Philip Island Winery has amazing wines, local cheeses, and a fantastic view. And of course, there is also a world-renown Grand Prix track. If you ever have an opportunity to visit Philip Island, I highly recommend it. The Penguin Parade is a must do – and so is warm clothing! The island has lots to offer, beautiful views, fantastic food and wine, and amazing solitude (during the right seasons of course!)