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Margaret Deefholts

The audience is hushed and expectant. A movement in the far shadows, and a tiny performer appears. There is a collective "ohhhh" from more than a thousand throats. The little guy throws a look of panic towards the tiered rows of spectators and hastily disappears. A minute later, two little figures emerge. This time the audience holds its breath. Another little figure joins the first two and the three of them swing their heads tentatively from side to side. Five more appear, then a whole cluster emerge from the water's edge.

These are the Little Penguins - often called "fairy" penguins - of Australia. They weigh about a kilo and are roughly fifteen inches tall. They are flightless birds, but wonderful swimmers, often foraging for food as much as fifty miles off shore.

I sit among a rapt audience, wedged between a Canadian family and a Japanese couple. The Japanese woman nudges her husband's arm, and mutters something to him. "We come all the way to see this," she says to me, in stumbling English, "and he forget to film!" She rolls her eyes. Her husband grins sheepishly at me and raises his video camera to his eye.

The Phillip Island Penguin Park is a two-hour drive south of Melbourne. Fronting on Bass Strait (the next land mass to the south is Tasmania), Summerland Beach, despite its balmy name, it is an inhospitable spot - cold, windy and dismally wet. I'm told by the staff of the Visitors' Information Centre at the entrance to the beach, that the weather isn't bad for 'autumn'. It's worse in winter from June to October. And, I gather, not all that much better in spring or summer either. Yet undeterred by this, thousands of tourists from all over the world, arrive by car and tour buses each evening around dusk to watch the Penguin Parade.

The beach is now filled with about fifty penguins, all of them looking like small tipsy waiters. Confident now in the strength of their numbers, they lurch and waddle towards us. Behind us, from a network of burrows in the sand dunes, come the plaintive, squeaky cries of their offspring, who sense the return of their parents, and are eagerly anticipating a nicely regurgitated mushy dinner.

Spurred on by these frantic calls, mums and dads - soon an undulating army of well over three hundred - stretch their necks forward, and accelerate into a determined two-hundred-yard wobbly dash up the beach. They pass so close to me that I'm tempted to reach over and stroke their sleek heads and black evening-dress tailcoats. Instead I merely make idiotic baby-crooning noises. One of them actually looks up at me, and I could swear he (or she!) winks derisively. This is, after all, what he (or she) puts up with every night.

The Australians have done an admirable job of coping with this influx of visitors, while still respecting the environmental habitation of the fairy penguins. The sand dunes, pocked with penguin burrows, extend a long way past the parking lot, but visitors are channelled along elevated board-walks throughout the area. The lighting along the beach is directed away from the water and flash photography is strictly prohibited because it damages the eyes of the birds. Plain clothes officials mingle with the crowd, and confiscate cameras from offenders. My Canadian neighbour seeing this, exclaims with enormous relish "Right on eh!"

The last penguins stagger in around 10.30 p.m. Perhaps they are dilatory socialites, who've hung around some watery 'dive' until the party wrapped up for the night. The benches on the beach empty quickly and people board their sightseeing buses. I linger and kneel on the boardwalks to peer into the burrows. Most of these are tucked away within the dunes, but some are accessable enough to discern shadowy parents and offspring - and hear contented feeding noises.

Eventually, I pull my rain-slicker close under my chin, and sprint against the wind, into my rental car. I shall carry the memory home with me. But what tales I wonder, will my rogishly winking penguin tell?

Getting There:

There are several coach tours to Phillip Island from Melbourne. Typically they leave Melbourne around 2.00 p.m. and return around midnight. However, it is worthwhile staying overnight and visiting other attractions on Phillip Island including the nearby Koala Sanctuary as well. Contact the Aussie Info Centre at 1-800-433-2877 for Bed & Breakfast facilities, or go to on the Web for information.

If you are a bird-lover, leave yourself at least an hour to browse through the Visitors Information Center - it has a wealth of detail on various species of penguins native to the south coast of Australia, the shores of Tasmania and New Zealand


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