Just off the coast of Melbourne -- the second-largest city in Australia -- is Phillip Island. Here, the world’s smallest, and debatably cutest, penguins make their homes inside beach dunes.
Named for their small stature, fairy penguins (also known as little penguins) stand at just over one foot tall. On Phillip Island, conservation efforts allow travelers to view these tiny, incredible animals in the wild. And not just one or two, but hundreds of waddling, 12-inch-tall, furry-looking penguins all at one time!
The Fairy Penguins Of Phillip Island
Over 4,000 fairy penguins make the journey back to their burrows every evening at Phillip Island. However, it’s estimated that far more fairy penguins live in the waters around the island. At 32,000 penguins, this makes the colony at Phillip Island one of the largest in the world.
These flightless birds spend 80 percent of their lives swimming in cool waters searching for small fish like anchovies and squid. The other 20 percent of their time is used to come ashore to breed, molt, feed their young, and rest in their burrows after days -- or even months -- at sea.
Having to run across an open beach where they are vulnerable to predators such as seahawks and gulls, they gather in groups called rafts just after sunset. Waddling ashore to their burrows, these groups have affectionately been dubbed the Penguin Parade.
Fortunately, visitors to Phillip Island are allowed to witness the Penguin Parade! Phillip Island Nature Parks is a conservation organization that was established in 1996 to protect the rich biodiversity of the island, including the fairy penguin population. The organization is dedicated to little penguin conservation, research, and educating visitors.
When Is The Best Time To Visit?
The Penguin Parade can be seen year-round, however, the number of penguins that come ashore varies. More penguins can be seen during the summer, while in the winter, many stay out in the ocean to stockpile fish. This bodes well for visitors since temperatures in Victoria can get quite low in the winter.
For the most comfortable temperatures and best viewing of the Penguin Parade, visit during Australia’s summer months -- December through February. Make sure to arrive at least an hour before penguin arrival time to walk through the educational center and get the best seats.
How To See The Penguin Parade
Phillip Island Nature Parks provides different options for viewing the Penguin Parade. The most common and budget-friendly option is the self-guided tour ($26.60 AUD) from the 180-degree General Viewing platform above Summerland Beach. The next step up affords you a spot on the Penguin Plus viewing platform, which provides ranger commentary and is limited to 300 people ($55 AUD).
If you want a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, book Phillip Island Nature Parks’ Ultimate Adventure Tour ($95 AUD). This experience removes all barriers -- including platforms and glass windows. Instead, with a ranger and night vision goggles, you’ll sit on a quiet beach away from the crowds in a group that’s limited to 10 participants. This adult-only tour provides an intimate experience as wild fairy penguins march right past your feet to their burrows.
Phillip Island is connected to Mornington Peninsula via a bridge, so there’s no need to book ferry tickets to get there. However, there is no public transportation to the island, so a car is necessary for the 90-minute drive from Melbourne. If you don’t want to make the night drive back, consider booking a tour that will deliver you door to door!
Are There Other Places To See Fairy Penguins?
Since fairy penguins like colder weather, they are found in various places south of Sydney on Australia’s East Coast, south of Perth on the West Coast, and along South Australia’s coastline. However, the largest populations of Fairy Penguins are found on Phillip Island.
Fairy penguins can also be found all along New Zealand’s coastline, where they are more commonly known as blue penguins because of the blueish tint of their feathers. The best places to visit fairy penguins in New Zealand are Oamaru, the Chatham Islands, and Banks Peninsula.