On a recent balmy evening, I watched in awe as thousands of shearwater birds engulfed the coastal cliffs on which I was standing and dove awkwardly into their nests below the dense shrub.
As the sun sank into Bass Strait and the clear skies swelled with the rolling fog of birds, the strangely echoing sounds of the nesting young could be heard calling to the audible whooshing of thousands of beating wings above.
It had been a few years since my last visit to Phillip Island and this nightly spectacle was even more astounding than I remembered. In the week leading up to Christmas I spent a few days visiting my oldest friend on this charming island, which juts out into Western Port Bay less than two hours south of Melbourne. The island, which is accessible from the mainland by bridge, is an eclectic mix of suburban housing developments, rolling farmland and distinct small town feel.
During summer months, international and domestic tourists flock, like shearwaters to a cliff, for traditional beach holidays and to glimpse some of Australia’s classic wildlife; most famously the little penguin, or fairy penguin as it is more commonly known as in Australia.
Phillip Island is one of Australia’s biggest tourist draws and every year over one million visitors come to watch these tiny creatures make their nightly march from the ocean to their burrows in the sand dunes. Despite visiting Phillip Island numerous times, I was yet to see the ‘penguin parade’ and this was going to be the trip where I would finally see what all the fuss was about. But first there were a few other things to check off my holiday list.
Holiday Towns and Beaches
The main street of Cowes, the largest town on the island, is everything you expect in a touristy seaside town. Small boutiques sell tasteful homewares and the type of light floral dresses usually bought on impulse and never worn again; tacky souvenir stores overflow with stuffed kangaroos and blow up beach toys; and sidewalk cafes, small restaurants and the customary ice cream shops are all there to ensure that holiday makers are well fed. One silly shoe purchase, a sticky mint chococolate chip cone, and a walk on the jetty later, and I was definitely in holiday mode. The famously temperamental weather of coastal Victoria was behaving and it was hard to feel anything but relaxed when surrounded by brilliant sunshine, sparkling water and sandy beaches.
The temperature the next day soared to 40 degrees and with nothing else to do but enjoy the weather, we happily headed down to one of Phillip Island’s many beaches to soak up the sun and splash in the chilly bay water.
San Remo, a small town that sits next to the bridge between the island and mainland, has always been a popular place for pelican feeding and jetty jumping. As I watched the screaming kids dive into the water I was reminded (not too fondly) of when, while on teenage visits with my best friend’s family, we would do the same. In order to avoid being called a wuss — my best friend’s threat — I would leap off the wooden platforms and into the clear water, eyes pressed tightly closed and desperately trying to keep my bikini top in place. Below we could see stingrays circling lazily in the sea.
These days everyone knows I’m a bit of a wimp, so I chose instead to float quietly in the shallows, avoiding any stingray sightings.
Fish, Chips, Wine and Wildlife
Dusting off the sand we headed off to enjoy a Phillip Island pastime we never experienced as kids, sipping cool crisp Sauvignon Blanc at the Purple Hen Winery, one of the Island’s two local wine producers. Named for the local swamp hen that inhabits the island, the winery overlooks Western Port Bay and the surrounding farmland. Looking out over the vines and watching the afternoon sun drift across the sky, we let the heat wash over us before continuing onto the evening activities.
Stopping off at the Rhyll foreshore, another of the Island’s small towns, we indulged in some of the freshest fish and chips in memory before continuing on to The Nobbies. Located on the western tip of the Island, this is the best spot for viewing the large seal colony which spends its days sunbathing on the rocky outcrops. Following the viewing platforms across the grassy knolls that run into the ocean, we were afforded a spectacular vista of the Phillip Island coastline.
Walking down to nearby Flynn’s beach, one of the many expansive strips of white sand that border the island, we came across an echidna, a small spiky marsupial, slowly burrowing her way into the sand bank. With a feeling of privilege to have seen this notoriously shy creature, we were both bowled over when this was followed by fifteen minutes watching a seal play in the calm bay water. That evening it was easy to see why Phillip Island has a reputation for wildlife. In the past 24 hours we had seen Shearwater birds, wallabies, native hens, pelicans, seals, an echidna and signs cautioning against snakes. The wildlife sightings were incredible — it was like nature had rallied together and come out in full force to welcome us. And we hadn’t even been to the penguin parade.
Later that evening we sat out on cement platforms, excitedly watching as the penguins surfed in on the waves and slowly made their way up the beach. The crowd buzzed as the first small group waddled up the sand, heads bent forward and little legs moving quickly. It was impossible not to be charmed by these 30cm-tall creatures marching towards us, stopping regularly to rest before starting off again with a little hop. Standing on the path in the dunes, the juveniles, who were nearly as big (or in this case small) as the adults, could be seen waiting anxiously for their parents return. Like the shearwaters, the penguins spend their days fishing at sea before returning to their burrows under the scrub where they are mauled by their hungry and impatient young.
The next morning I got up for a pre-breakfast walk. Still feeling elated from the previous evening’s penguin sightings, I was surprised to run into a fat seal sunning himself on the boat ramp by the beach. He seemed to flap his tail and twitch his whiskers in greeting before returning to his nap. When I excitedly told my friend later she shrugged her shoulders. Just another average morning on Phillip Island.