Raj Swaroop meets The Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor), the foot-tall residents of Philip Island, which houses their largest conservatory. And pens a travelogue with a difference that makes your heart go out to these timid, nervous creatures who have their own struggles to face and overcome.
My wife was keener on the trip. It was amidst much grumbling on my part that we had planned and finalised the visit. Taking our very active then two and a half year old daughter on a seven hour flight was a little taxing, especially since the take-off had been delayed by almost two hours waiting for transit passengers. Eventually, we found ourselves tucked into bed comfortably at my brother-in-law’s place in Glenhuntly, a predominantly Asian suburb of Melbourne.
On the third day, we made it to the famed Phillip Island to watch the penguins. The Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor) was native to Australia and New Zealand. Philip Island houses their largest conservatory; we were reminded several times by the driver, who doubled up as a tour guide during the two hour bus drive from downtown Melbourne.
If the trip itself was for my wife’s sake, this excursion was for my daughter. For me, penguins were a childhood curiosity – flightless birds, somewhat clumsy, nothing more, and nothing less.
Phillip Island had a desolate windswept look to it, till then noticed by me only in period movies featuring battle scenes. The grass on both the sides of the road was dry, brown, rough and tall. In one place, it was tall enough to hide a fully grown wallaby which we almost missed.
While there were several notices forbidding photography of any kind, I made a mental note to ignore them all. The penguin nests were burrow like mounds of mud and earth, on either side of the main walkway for visitors. The temperature was said to be twelve degrees Celsius but felt like two, thanks to the strong southerly wind from the Bass Strait that kept billowing my unzipped fleece jacket. I was concerned for our daughter who was born and used to only tropical Singapore and for two days running had caught a cold. I need not have worried.
The penguins themselves seemed like soft toys. About a foot tall – 33 centimetres, Wikipedia would say – was the fully grown adult. At dusk, they emerged from the water, clambered onto shore side rocks and just stood there, in little groups of 20-30 individuals. They waited, seemingly patiently. We waited, restlessly. Why didn’t they just walk ashore to their burrows?
It was not as simple as that. They are timid, nervous creatures. Small and vulnerable, they are hunted on sea, from the skies and on land by several predators. Feral dogs, dingos, skuas, seals, even large rats were a danger. Till recently Phillip Island had been a realtor’s paradise, until the local government had stepped in and banned all sale of land. Man, though not a predator in modern times, was an accidental killer. Several penguins were unsuspecting road kill. The penguins had to swim ashore, wait, walk across the earthen mounds and get to their burrows to their waiting young among hundreds of other juveniles, one step at a time, instinctively. Every day was a new day. The young walked out of their burrows at dusk, by themselves and waited. And watched. They would be fed when their parents returned, if their parents returned.
Beneath the stubby legs, flippers, graceless waddle and comical appearance was a primordial struggle of life and death. I felt thankful for being born human.
Our group had about seventy people, minded by one lone warden. I could have taken as many photographs had I wished to. Somehow, it didn’t seem right. Somehow, the memories seem richer.
** Note: Flash photography upsets penguins. It is an unusual occurrence and sends them a danger signal from their home. They would never return and the young would starve. It is difficult to separate flash from non-flash photography. Hence all kinds of photographs are banned at Phillip Island.
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