Penguins on Parade

Visitors flock to watch this nightly spectacle

The sun has nearly slipped into the Bass Strait, the treacherous waters that run between the south coast of Australia and Tasmania. In the last remaining daylight, you can spot a few small white dots darting about the shoreline. They move closer, stop, move back and forward, and soon another cluster comes out of the surf, and another. As the dots get closer, you can make them out for what they are: the snowy chests and bellies of penguins. The Phillip Island Penguin Parade has begun.

Standing only 13 to 16 inches tall, the hundreds of "fairy," or little, penguins that live on the dunes behind the island's Summerfield Beach are the smallest of 17 species. And unlike most species, their feathers -- except for the white chest and belly -- are dark blue rather than black. They spend the day -- or several days, in the nonbreeding season -- at sea, foraging for anchovies, pilchard, squid, and small crustaceans. They return to land only under the cover of darkness.

Their nightly parade is one of Australia's most popular wildlife attractions. The Phillip Island Nature Park -- a 90-minute drive south from Melbourne -- makes the bird-watching easy. You can view the procession year-round from a seaside amphitheater. The beach is bathed in a soft light, roughly that of a full moon; any brighter and the penguins might not march.

After the first few groups of birds cross the beach and head up the dunes, so do the visitors. Boardwalks cross the dunes, and every one is a great viewing stand. They're raised with enough clearance so the penguins can waddle under them on the way to their burrows. On the night I visited, I found a group of eight idling at the point where the dunes meet the beach. They stood there for at least five minutes, moving around in place, much like a group of marchers might assemble for a parade.

Then the lead penguin started his way up, and the others followed. As they ascend, penguins peel off from the group, each heading to a different burrow. Although there's no music in this parade, there's plenty of noise as the penguins squawk loudly, to warn away rivals and attract mates.

If you're going to attend the parade, plan to arrive at least an hour before sunset -- early enough to take in the visitor center exhibits, including the nesting boxes where you may see parents and chicks. Bring warm clothing, even in summer, which runs from December through March. Admission costs about $10 for adults and $5 for children. Bus tours from Melbourne run about $50 to $70, including admission. If you want photos, you'll have to purchase them, since all photography is prohibited. (For more info, and a parade video, visit www.penguins.org.au.)

On the way out, remember to check around your car before starting it. On their way home, penguins sometimes cut through the parking lot.

By Jeffrey M. Laderman

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