Clients who visit Phillip Island can tour the Koala Conservation Centre. // © 2015 Shane Nelson
Feature image (above): Phillip Island is home to about 32,000 penguins. // © 2015 Tourism Australia
Peering through a night-vision scope, I watched two little penguins waddle out of the gentle shore break and vigorously shake themselves dry. Not much taller than a pair of wine glasses, the tiny duo stood for a moment in the dark sand, a few steps beyond the reach of ocean waves, and called out to comrades still swimming offshore.
Before long, a handful of toddling reinforcements had joined the original adventurers, and the newcomers shuddered themselves dry with a familiar zeal. Satisfied their numbers were now sufficient, the entire troupe made its way toward the safety of tall grass and shrubs farther onshore on the west-facing coast of Australia’s Phillip Island.
There were 10 of us watching the procession from several hundred yards inland, seated in a dry, sandy creek bed and outfitted in black rain paints, jackets and high-tech microphone-headphone devices. As the darkness deepened, the number of toddling penguin squadrons grew, and many of the little bands passed only a matter of feet from us, their eyes shining in my night-vision equipment. At one point, a number of the birds hurried right by me, so I put down the scope and could just make out the waddling brigade, moving over the creek bed like a collection of plush children’s toys fleeing from the gift shop.
Phillip Island’s Penguin Parade attraction offers visitors a number of ways to observe the tiny birds. In the destination’s natural preserve, the birds exit the sea at dusk, heading for inland burrows while cleverly avoiding predators who are active primarily in daylight. I’d joined the Ultimate Adventure Tour (about $86 for adults ages 16 and over), which connects a maximum of 10 guests with a park ranger, who guides the group to a secluded shoreline location and whispers all sorts of insight into the microphone-headphone system worn by participants. The black rain gear is provided by the operator to help clients blend into the darkness and avoid disturbing the wary penguins, which are easily startled — especially by flash photography, which is strictly forbidden.
Philip Island is home to about 32,000 little penguins. The animals don’t get much taller than 13 inches and are sometimes also referred to as fairy penguins. Visitors have been coming to the island to view the dusk penguin parade for decades, but officials at the preserve have worked hard to limit the impact of visitors, building infrastructure around the birds’ habitual paths from the ocean to their burrows and creating premium eco-tour products such the one I participated in, where people can get pretty close without disturbing the evening march.
While the tiny penguins are certainly Phillip Island’s major draw, the destination also offers wildlife lovers a number of opportunities to spot exceptional Australian animals. My visit began at the island’s Koala Conservation Centre, where I joined a guided tour of the facility’s treetop boardwalks and spotted a handful of the fuzzy creatures dozing in their favorite eucalyptus trees. The center features an interpretive facility loaded with information about koalas, and the sprawling grounds are also home to wallabies, possums and spiky, long-snouted echidnas.
Philip Island visitors may also want to consider booking a Wild Oceans EcoBoat tour, which takes guests on 60- and 90-minute jet-boat trips along the rugged Phillip Island coast and offers a wonderful stop at a teaming fur-seal colony. During my outing, we saw a range of adorable and endlessly energetic seal pups out at Seal Rocks. From June to September, the tour is great a way to spot humpback and southern right whales and, apparently, it’s not uncommon for guests to see orcas.
Just a 90-minute drive south from Melbourne, Phillip Island makes an easy day trip. Visitors should stop and have a meal at The Cape Kitchen restaurant, which features stunning ocean views of Bass Strait and a menu loaded with locally sourced produce. Phillip Island is also home to several wineries, and beer lovers will want to make a stop at Rusty Water Brewery to sample the establishment’s Koala Pale Ale.