Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Wallabies Are Not Baby Kangaroos

And Koalas Are Not Bears

But Penguins Are Always Cute

March 5, 2013
Yesterday, I succumbed to the lure of the tour package.  Phillip Island, SE of Melbourne, is home to the largest colony of little penguins in this part of the world.  So of course I had to go visit them.

The package tour to Phillip Island includes a visit to a historic farm site that still has a working farm; to the Koala Conservation Reserve; and of course, an evening at the Penguin Parade.
Our tour bus was late.  Buses came, loaded their groups, left.  We waited.  And waited.  I chatted with a few women from Finland, and the US.  Somehow someone got word that our bus had broken down and a new bus was coming – so we decided to line up and be in front.  The bus pulled up with a very handsome driver, except he turned out to be the mechanic bringing in this replacement bus.  (Several of the women were rather disappointed.)  We clambered aboard (and yes, I was first) and settled in for the long drive out to Phillip Island.

The driver gave the usual boring speeches that drivers do, and then continued along the 2 hour trek.  We chatted amongst ourselves – there was a honeymooning couple from New Jersey in front of me; a mother and daughter from Wisconsin; an older set of four relatives from India; a chattering group of young women from Japan; and my favorite, a family of four Italians seated behind me, parents and one grown son from Sicily, visiting the other brother who is living in Brisbane, but they left to escape the rain.  Plus of course my friends from Finland.

We arrived at Churchill Island, a small heritage site with the farm and all.  Most people went to look at the museum farmhouse, or to watch a sheep shearing demonstration.  I went to the wallaby enclosure.  It was a hot afternoon, and most of the wallabies were sleeping under trees, pretending to ignore me as I walked around and talked to them.  But a mama wallaby was up and preening, with her young joey (or josie?) hanging out with her.  Suddenly the two of them sprang into action and bounced their way across to the far end of their huge enclosure, me running after them to see where they were going, and too excited to even think about getting a photo.  Because they truly do bounce – they don’t jump, you don’t see the legs flex, they kind of rock back on those long feet and maybe give a little push off with their tail, and all of a sudden they’re airborne and bouncing!!!  Absolutely amazing!!! 

Well, my mama and youngster wallabies went over the feeding trough and proceeded to eat and hang out, and let me catch a few good photos of the two of them.  They were very good about staying in one spot and letting me photograph them, mostly in profile.  They really are amazing animals – at one point the little one tried to climb into his/her mom’s pouch, but he/she was obviously too big to fit anymore.  But it was funny to see him/her sticking an entire head into the pouch, then pulling back out.

All too soon, our time here was up.  Back onto the bus.  More tour info.  Drop a few people off for the optional seal cruise.  Back on the bus.  Then off to the koala reserve, where most of us wanted to go anyway.

As you all know, koalas are also marsupials.  And they hang out in eucalyptus trees.  And they’re nocturnal.  Which means by late afternoon, a few of them are waking up and starting to nibble on a few leaves.  But most of the koalas we saw were curled up in balls wedged into spaces between branches, arms and legs and long claws wrapped around and holding on.  A few truly looked like giant fuzzy balls up in the tree, almost perfectly round, they’re curled up so tightly.  But a few were awake, eating or climbing higher in the trees to get away from us gawking at them.  Very cute and cuddly looking, until you look at those long long claws – I’m not sure I’m ready to hold one of these little guys.


The koala reserve has raised boardwalks so 
people can walk at mid-tree height.  And while I normally get a bit dizzy seeing the ground moving around below me, I think I spent all my time looking up at the koalas, so I barely saw the ground – unless I caught a glimpse of a wallaby bouncing by.  One koala was almost reclining on his back, reaching up for a few select leaves before falling asleep, one arm still outstretched.  Another koala turned around, looked at all of us, and climbed farther up the tree, only to wrap around the branch and fall asleep again.  But my favorite was this guy at eye level, wedged in, body on one side of the tree trunk and face on the other, sound asleep and oblivious to all the excitement he caused by being almost in touching range. 

Of course, this very explicit sign prevented anyone from trying to touch the koala.  Well, so did the presence of a young ranger.  (I asked him if the rangers named the koalas, and he said yes, of course, each one has a name.  So I pointed to one and asked what was his name?  Well, this ranger had no idea, because he’s usually over in the penguin parade area and he’s just filling in at the koala reserve for a few days, so he hasn’t learned the names of the koalas yet.  I figured I shouldn’t ask him if he knows the names of all 1500 or so penguins who come in each night, LOL!)

 Once again, our time with the koalas was all too brief, and it was time to pile back into the bus.  We were whisked off to an area called The Nobbies, named after the original owner of part of the property.  There are beautiful vistas of rock formations in the sea (or actually the straits, I think this was Bass Straits), including a nice blowhole.  My Italian friends called it a spruzzo, which I think is a much nicer name than a blowhole.

This area is also home to many of the penguins, so the ground is full of holes – it almost looks like a giant wiffle ball, or maybe a giant golf ball, each dent being a hole leading to a penguin burrow.  (More holes than Swiss cheese, so even though that might be an obvious comparison, it really is just all wrong.)  There are also penguin boxes for artificial burrows, especially in areas where land changes have disturbed the penguins’ homes.  So in wandering  along the boardwalks (to protect the penguin burrows) we could see that some penguins were still in their boxes.  This is moulting season, so many of the burrows had piles of feathers around the entrance.   

One poor penguin just looked so miserable in his/her/its home: some smooth sleek feathers, with little tufts of old feathers growing out, a pile of feathers littering the front yard of its home, and the poor little penguin looking around and breathing deep depressed sighs, as if even breathing was uncomfortable.  Poor sad little guy, it was a hot afternoon, and this penguin was just longing for the feathers to fall out so the new waterproof ones would come in, and it could get back into the ocean and fish.  (sigh)  And swim.  (sigh)  And cool off.  (sigh)  And drink some water.  Seriously, this was the most dramatic little penguin I’ve ever seen, doing an imitation of Camille on her deathbed, or maybe Sarah Bernhardt in one of her roles – just deep shuddering sighs of resignation at its miserable fate of waiting out the annual moult.  It would have been comical if the penguin hadn’t looked so truly depressed.  And yes, it could have used some penguin Prozac.

There were also a few penguins hanging out under one part of the boardwalk, most likely either the smokers of the group, or the insurgents planning a rebellion.  Juvenile delinquent penguins.  Or something.  But definitely doing something surreptitiously, and trying hard to not be noticed.

We eventually climbed back on our bus and headed over to the beach at the far corner of the island, where it’s easier for the penguins to come on shore, and thus there are greater numbers coming ashore here each night.  The bus had to stop once or twice to let the wallabies cross the road, and of course everyone on the bus would be pointing and looking and ooohing and aaaahing at the cute little guys.  

We headed down to the viewing stands, walking across boardwalks that again go over and around penguin burrows, with the occasional wallaby bouncing through.  We sat down, some of us in the general seating, some in the Penguin Plus section.  It was a pretty sunset, stars started to come out, it was almost dark, and suddenly there they were, little penguins rising from the sea foam and pausing to get their bearings, before the groups waddled up the beach.  It’s almost as if the white sea foam transforms into little white bellies and dark backs, the frothing water turning into penguins like Aphrodite rising from the sea.  There were several key areas where the penguins came up, in groups of ten, fifteen, twenty, and over by the Penguin Plus section groups of maybe thirty or forty.  Wave after wave of penguins coming in and heading up to their burrows, walking past and under the viewing stands, under and around the boardwalks, going home after a hard day of fishing. 

There were the usual little penguin dramas: two young penguins hanging out under a bush right by where I was sitting, playing and fighting and arguing, until the adults started walking by, then rushing up to each adult and chirping as if to say, “Are you my mother?  Do you have my supper?”  I waited around until the two parents returned and the youngsters rushed them and finally they were getting their food.  Then there was the little baby puffball of feathers, no white yet, just solid grey, who was also running up and down the area outside its burrow, chirping and peeping and waiting for mama to come along with some fresh fish.  (I asked the ranger, who said the adults continue to come in for several hours, and the baby would be okay, not to worry.) 

I have no idea how many penguins came in while we were there.  Several hundred.  Maybe more, like six hundred?  The previous night there were over eight hundred.  The previous week there had been twelve to fourteen hundred.  And that’s just on this beach – the penguins also come in by The Nobbies, and slowly climb up the rocks and hills to reach the burrows there.  I really don’t know how many little penguins live here, but the number of burrows is staggering.  Walking back to the bus, along the boardwalk, there were waves of penguins walking back to their burrows, partners or youngsters coming out to greet them, all kinds of mewling and squawking and chirping and screaming – tons of noise, some happy, some argumentative. 

And still, with the occasional wallaby bouncing through.  Somehow they manage not to bounce on top of any of the little penguins, despite the fact that they are all over underfoot.

It was an incredible experience!  I would do it again in a minute!  Yes, it is a long trip.  Yes, I didn’t get home until nearly midnight.  But I got to see more little blue penguins at one time than I’ve seen in three previous sightings.  With wallabies as a bonus!  Add in fuzzy ball koalas, and, well, it was a wonderful day!!!!!

As the Italian papa and I agreed, “Molti penguins!!!!!  Molto bene!!!!!”

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