ANURAG MALLICK explores the wild charms of Phillip Island near Melbourne – home to Little Penguins, seals, wallabies and migrating Australian Humpback whales
While I had conveniently flown from Bangalore to Melbourne on Singapore Airlines and had driven down 137km to Phillip Island, the little penguins we were to encounter had a much more arduous journey. They had spent perhaps a few weeks at sea foraging for food and swum hundreds of kilometers before coming ashore at sunset, a spectacle of nature known as the ‘Penguin Parade’.
At 33cm and weighing just a kilo, Little Penguins (Eudyptula minor) are the smallest of the 17 penguin species in the world. They breed in colonies along Australia’s southern coastlines and Phillip Island is home to over 32,000. Tourists throng Phillip Island Nature Park in equally large numbers to watch the penguins tumble in from the waves and waddle across the beach into their nesting burrows where they breed, raise their young, moult and rest.
To compensate for their diminutive stature, Little Penguins are ‘counter-shaded’; their dark blue back blends in with the water to camouflage against predators flying overhead and the light blue stomach merges with the sky to camouflage against predators swimming underneath.
Surrounded by penguins, seals and whales from Antarctica migrating north, sleepy koalas in the eucalyptus trees, Cape Barren Geese dotting the lush landscape, wallabies grazing at sunset and shy Copperhead snakes, the only snake species on the island; Phillip Island is a wild tract of unparalleled natural beauty. But it wasn’t always like this…
For thousands of years, Aboriginal tribes travelled here to collect shellfish, fish, Short-tailed Shearwaters (mutton birds), wallabies and ochre. In the late 1700s, Europeans came by boats to hunt seals. In 1798, British naval surgeon and explorer George Bass entered the area and named the bay of Western Port and Seal Rocks.
In the early 1800s, over 240,000 seals were killed in Bass Strait for their pelts, used for hats and clothing. Between 1890 and 1918, thousands of penguins were killed for their oil and by 1930, less than 5000 king penguins remained. Only after Macquarie Island was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1933 were King Penguins saved from extinction.
The island was named after Arthur Phillip, the first Governor of New South Wales. Penguin watching goes back to the 1920s when local residents Bern Denham, Bert West and Bert Watchorn started taking tourists to see the little penguins’ nocturnal arrival on Summerland beach by torchlight. The first access road was built in 1927 and the first bridge to Phillip Island came up in 1939. A whaling ban in 1963 led to the Australian humpback whales too making a comeback.
Located at Point Grant on the western tip of Phillip Island, the Nobbies Centre is the perfect ecotourism destination to learn about the island and its denizens. Antarctic Journey gives a virtual multi-media tour of Antarctica, the last frontier of nature and the coldest climate on earth. Located 3785km away from Antarctica, you can compare your thermal image with that of an Emperor penguin, feel the local weather at the Antarctic Chill Zone or take a peek at the earth’s southernmost webcam. The audio-visual kiosks and 8 state-of-the-art screens with whales, seals and penguins superimposed with your figures through 3D projection, keep one enthralled. There’s even an interactive seafood menu to check what fish are edible or not!
Just outside, the boardwalks overlook the rugged coastline sculpted by the southwest winds and southern ocean swells. The centre is named after the distinct mesa like island jutting out of the sea called Nobbies. Another fascinating sight is the Nobbies blowhole, shaped by waves entering a cave and compressing trapped air to create an explosive jet spray.
Years of erosion had caused cliffs to weather away, leaving behind rock platforms where Sooty Oystercatchers darted about with their red legs and beaks. In the distance stood Volcanic Rock, Seagull Rock, Pyramid Rock and the distinct headland of Cape Woolamai, the highest point on the island.
Since there was enough time for the Penguin Parade at 5:45pm, we took a back road with some scenic lookouts and drove to the main town Cowes for lunch. Eddie’s Isola di Capri, an Italian restaurant overlooking the beautiful promenade, has photos of racing legends and autographed helmets as decor.
During the annual Phillip Island Grand Prix in October, thousands flood the island for racing action. The Circuit even has Go-Karts at a 760m scale replica of the racetrack. After devouring capricciosa pizzas with anchovies and grilled trevally fillets, we drove 15 min to Rhyll Jetty for the Eco Boat Tour to Seal Rocks.
Rhyll is a key spot on the George Bass Heritage Trail. George Bass, aged 27, surgeon of HMS Reliance was authorized by Governor Hunter to take six seamen and six weeks’ provisions in a 27 foot 8 inch whaleboat to explore the coast south of Sydney “as far as he could go with safety and convenience”. They left Sydney at 6pm on Sunday 3 December 1797 and reached this point on 18 Jan, 1798. A stone memorial with a plaque acted as a marker. In 1803, Bass sailed from Port Jackson to South America and was never heard of again.
Our captain briefed us that our destination was 14 sea miles away and advised us to strap on our seat belts since the waves could get choppy. And thus, we set off bounding on the Southern Seas, shaken and stirred. Seal Rocks is home to nearly 30,000 seals, the largest colony of fur seals in Australia. Young seals playfully darted in and out of water while the older larger ones croaked and growled from their rocky perches. Seals can dive down 200m and hold their breath for three minutes as they search for food.
From Rhyll Jetty, there’s also a Captain’s Lunch Cruise, a 2¾-hr return trip to Cape Woolamai with lunch of fresh fish, chips and salad and a stop at San Remo for pelican feeding. San Remo, at the island’s western entrance, has a fisherman’s co-operative and every day at noon, a lady comes to feed the pelicans, which is quite a sight!
It was evening when we arrived for the Penguin Parade. Groups of penguins had started congregating beyond the waves and rafts had started to form. After a quick check by a scout, the first batch of Little penguins tumbled ashore. The timing is critical as after sunset, their land predators and larger birds like gulls and kites are asleep. With animated ‘huk huk’, they walked past the viewing platforms, under the boardwalks and into their burrows.
Almost 90% of the penguins arrive in the first hour, though some trickle in as late as sunrise. They go wherever there’s fish aplenty – anchovies, pilches and silverfish! And the reason they waddle is because they’re so full of fish. Emily, a ranger, explained that penguins make very good parents, but very bad partners. They’re together as long as they have to look after the young in breeding season (Sep-Feb).
Males build the burrow with their feet and line them with sticks, twigs and grasses with their sharp beak. That’s the only way to tell the genders apart – males have a thicker beak, slightly hooked at the end. Guests can even help the ranger build a burrow for the penguins.
Phillip Island Nature Reserve, a not-for-profit organization, is dedicated to penguin research and runs a penguin hospital that performs rescue during oil slicks. They also run Churchill Island, a historical homestead and farm where they do sheep shearing, sheep dog demonstrations and boomerang throwing, with a nice café. The Koala Conservation Centre gives visitors a chance to observe the cute cuddlies.
Koalas are fussy eaters who eat only eucalyptus leaves. They don’t drink, except when sick or dying. But due to overfeeding they are eating themselves out of habitat! Since their diet has no protein or vitamins, they are extremely lethargic and spend almost 20 hrs sleeping. In the other 4 hrs, they feed, mate or relocate to another tree. Sadly, the acidic diet causes their teeth to grind down over time and they literally fast to death.
We had no such intention and gorged on oysters and mussels linguini at Sherwoods and retired to our seaside perch Waves. The island has plenty of other attractions like Amaze N’ Things with its funny mirrors, puzzles and illusions, Phillip Island Chocolate Factory, Purple Hen winery and scenic flights operated over Phillip Island.
Disused chicory kilns from the early 1900s were strewn all over while old shearing sheds had been converted into restaurants. Conservation was the new mantra and had indeed given a fillip to the island, which sees 3.5 million tourists each year.
Singapore Airlines flies from Bangalore to Melbourne via Singapore. Phillip Island is 131 km from Melbourne and just a 1¾ hr drive via the M420. http://www.singaporeair.com
When to go
The Penguin Parade takes place round the year, though the winter months of July-September are ideal for whale watching. If you are a racing fan, the Phillip Island Moto GP is held in October for 3 days.
Where to Stay
The Waves Apartments
1 The Esplanade, Cowes
Ph +61 03 5952 1351 http://www.thewaves.com.au
Where to Eat
Isola Di Capri
Corner Thompson Avenue & The Esplanade, Cowes
Ph +61 3 5952 2435 www.isoladicapri.com.au
5 Thompson Avenue, Cowes
Ph +61 3 5952 3773 www.sherwoodsrestaurant.com.au
Mad Cowes Café
3/4 17 The Esplanade, Cowes
Ph +61 3 5952 2560 https://www.madcowescafe.com.au
1215 Phillip Island Road, Newhaven
Ph +61 3 5956 7200 http://thecapekitchen.com.au
Things to Do
Antarctic Journey, Nobbies Centre: Adult $18 Child $9. (10am-4:45pm)
Wild Oceans Eco Boat Express Tour: Adult $85 Child $65
Penguin Parade: General Viewing Adult $25.10 Child $12.50
4-park bundle pass also available
Wildlife Coast Cruises
Amaze N’ Things
Ph +61 3 5952 2283
Phillip Island Chocolate Factory
Ph +61 3 5956 6600
Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 3 September 2017 in Sunday Herald, the Sunday supplement of Deccan Herald.