Thursday, March 28, 2013

Penguin Island

28 March 2013

Okay, this was my Mecca.  My Utopia.  Not to be disrespectful to anyone's religion, but this was like a pilgrimage for me.  I think I've become a registered pengophile.  Well, I've always loved penguins, been fascinated by the little guys.  But the little blue penguins are something special - I don't have to freeze to see them.  They have so much personality packed into a little body that's barely a foot tall.  They play and argue and cavort and are just too cute for their own good.  They hang out in New Zealand and Australia, instead of Antarctica.  And they're BLUE!!!  How can anyone not love little blue penguins???

There's a little ferry that goes from Penguin Road, Rockingham, out to Penguin Island.  It's a five minute trip out to this island that is solely a penguin and sea bird rookery.  No one lives there, no one is allowed on the island after 4 PM.  The island is dedicated to the sea birds.  
And some 1200 little penguins call it home.

We saw crested terns (the ones on this upside down thing) - they have crazy black crests that float upward, sort of the Donald King hairstyle.

Huge white pelicans, diving for fish.

Large gulls screaming overhead, fighting, arguing, and getting ready for their own breeding season.  (I was nearly attacked by a gull who was screeching overhead - took me a moment to realize I must have been a bit too close to their nest, and I quickly moved away.  Didn't want to be attacked by a gull!)

This was our first excursion out into the Indian Ocean, short as it was - and the day was perfect.  Cloudless blue sky, and the water so crystal clear we could see the shadows of birds floating on the surface.  It was the beautiful aqua of tropical water, fading to deep turquoise and then rich blue as it got deeper and deeper.  Water so clear it looks like you could drink it, except for the fact that it's salt water.  Gorgeous and clean.
Like most of the penguin rookeries we've visited, boardwalks have been built that crisscross the nesting area.  This way, people can walk around and look at the penguin burrows without disturbing the burrows or the penguins.   

The boardwalks also provide some shade for penguins who, for whatever reason, stay home for a day - maybe they're moulting, or have chicks too young to be left alone, or whatever.  Under the boardwalks seems to be a popular gathering place for the penguins.

I walked all around the island, the entire boardwalk trail and the beaches on both sides of the island.  (And, having no idea which way the island is oriented, I'm not sure if the beaches were east and west or north and south - just, both sides of the island.)
I didn't see a single penguin on my walk, but I certainly heard them!  They make a weird sound that's somewhere between a loud purr and a screech.  I don't know how else to describe it, sort of a loud shrill hum or thrum or something.  (It sounds almost mechanical - definitely a metallic edge to the sound.)

Anyway, I didn't see the little guys, but I heard them.  Found out later from the rangers that the yearly moulting season is over, and breeding season is beginning.  So pairs are building their nests and decorating them properly (this seems to be a major little penguin pre-occupation, decorating their nests with seaweed and twigs and such).

The rangers go out for a daily penguin count, and I met two who had young women rangers who had just returned from the count in their sector.  They said there were quite a lot of penguins on the island today, busily working on their nests, and that yes, I definitely would have heard them as I walked around.  (If I could hear the penguins above the screeching and screaming gulls!)  This is a busy penguin time, so they often don't fish for a day and just work on making their nests perfect before the female lays her eggs.

Actually, I think I saw/heard an argument between two gulls and a penguin - two gulls were standing outside a penguin burrow, looking in and doing the gull screech, and I definitely heard the penguin shrill thrum sound - I have no idea what they were saying, but the gulls seemed to have lost the argument because they finally left.

Oh, a funny story - as we disembarked from the ferry and walked along the boardwalk, one little boy commented on all the "bird poo" on the boardwalk and stairs.   His mother, to reinforce his comment, agreed that yes, there was a lot of bird poo all over the stairs.  The older sister, all of seven or eight years old, said in a most disdainful voice, "Well, when you visit a bird island, OF COURSE there's going to be bird poo" as if only she could figure that out.

It just made me laugh.

And for the coastal geomorphologists among our readers:  There's a long sand bar that looks like it connects Penguin Island to the mainland.  Every so often people try to walk or swim from the island back to the mainland, or the reverse.  But there are hidden drop offs, as well as strong waves and currents, and it's very unsafe.  In fact, there are signs all over trying to prohibit people from attempting this.

Richard and I have decided that this probably isn't a true tombolo, since the entire sand bar isn't really totally above water, except possibly at a super low tide.  (We really did have a discussion about that.)

So - the stars of Penguin Island - the little blue penguins.  The Discovery Center is home to penguins who are rescued - some get tangled in fishing line and can't dive for food, and are rescued at sea.  Others might be injured and need medical care.  Still others might be orphaned while they are too young to go out and fend for themselves.  So the rangers at the island take care of these rescued penguins, and try to return them to the wild.  But often, an injury might prevent their return to fishing for themselves.  Or their rehabilitation might take too long, and the rescued penguin might become to accustomed to being housed and fed.

A few of the penguins at the center are much older than the average penguin in the wild - the one (confirmed) female is nearly 16 years old, while in the wild the average life expectancy of a little blue penguin is around 7 years.

Plus, of course, this way people get to see the little guys, who are just too funny.

Some of the penguins insist on being fed a certain way.  Others prefer to "catch" the fish that are tossed into their pool.  However, these fish are frozen and thawed - the rangers tried live fish once, but the penguins have become so used to the not-live fish that they really didn't know what to do with the live fish!

So each penguin has their own name, and their own personality, and their own feeding pattern.  One likes to nibble on a finger before accepting a fish.  Another prefers to grab the fish over his shoulder.  Another needs to be coaxed up the stairs - he's the baby of the bunch, just recently rescued, and he hasn't quite figured out the routine.

Some of the penguins were as curious about the human visitors as we are about the penguins!


And all too soon it was time to leave Penguin Island.  The last ferry leaves at 4 PM sharp, and all visitors are expected to be off the island by then.

There was an unexpected bonus for me on the other side - right by the ferry "terminal" (really, just a little dock, by Pengo's Café - seriously, that's the name of the café, Pengo's!) there was a mosaic with little blue penguins!  An artist received a community grant to design and execute this mosaic featuring little blue penguins!  Students assisted with the project, and it really is beautiful - and such a lovely tribute to my new little pengy friends!

It was another wonderful day Down Under!


  1. I'd never seen pelicans before Australia - I love seeing them floating - so majestic!

  2. I was there with my kids a few years ago and I totally agree with you. Way behind on spark but saw that you're still enjoying your fantastic journey. (millisma)