Phillip Island’s Parading Penguins Are an Australian Fairy Tale Come to Life

Many people who visit Melbourne put Phillip Island at the top of their travel to-do list. And no wonder. Its pristine coastal beauty and A-list of Australian animals in their natural setting make it nothing short of enchanting. Koalas, kangaroos, wallabies and more – what’s not to like?

It gets even better at sunset, thanks to the storied Penguin Parade on Summerland Beach, the only one like it anywhere. The 20,000 breeding pairs of fairy penguins outnumber the island’s 14,000 permanent residents – happy math for those seeking a unique Australian experience.  

Cape Woolamai, Phillip Island Nature Park, Australia./Wikimedia Commons photo by BennyG3255

The journey to the island is just as riveting as the destination. Beautiful scenery accompanies the two-hour drive southeast of Melbourne, much of it in wine country known for its sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, pinot noir and shiraz. There are cherries, olives and strawberries – and cattle, too. 

Kangaroo carpaccio, anyone?

Paringa Estate and winery. Photo courtesy of Paringa Estate

It’s my second day with guide Max Thomas of Melbourne Private Tours, and I know that when he says “next-level spectacular” about our lunch stop at an award-winning winery, he means it. 

Paringa Estate on the Mornington Peninsula checks all the boxes – especially the starter, or as the Aussies call it, the first course or entree: kangaroo carpaccio with pickled cranberries and purple carrots with macadamia cream.

My travel adviser had included kangaroo, the country’s national animal, on her list of “Six Local Australian Foods You Need to Try,” and I was eager to taste it. I’d sampled kangaroo pizza at a pub in Sydney and seen kangaroo sausage at the historic Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne – but this? It was something to savor.  

For the record, there are more kangaroos than people in all but two of Australia’s 10 states – and each year the government permits a cull of about 3 million, much of which ends up on a dinner plate. Roo, by the way, tastes like beef, is low in fat and is best served rare to medium. 

Koala at the conservation center takes a break./Wikimedia Commons photo by edwin.11

After lunch, we stopped by wildlife sanctuaries Moonlit and the Koala Conservation Centre. I learned a lot on this trip. Joeys, for example, are kangaroo and koala babies. Emus can run up to 31 mph. Koalas spend 18 to 20 hours asleep in eucalyptus trees, which they feast on exclusively.

The two sanctuaries aren’t zoo-like. The animals mostly are free-ranging, and visitors are welcome to pet and feed some of them. I was surprised at how soft kangaroo fur is – and how emphatic the male koala sounds when marking his territory.

Occasionally, one can still spot koalas and kangaroos in the wild on Phillip Island, recognized as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Conservation measures protect about a third of the island.

A penguin primer

Fairy Penguin, Melbourne zoo./Wikimedia Commons photo by Takver 

As fabulous as the opening act is, the headliner on this day trip is the Penguin Parade, when hundreds of the blue and white fairy or little penguins waddle out of the sea at dusk and clamber to their burrows in the sandy hillside. 

First, a short penguin primer: 

Phillip Island is home to the largest fairy penguin population in the world. Notably, these are the smallest of all 18 species, barely a foot high and weighing just over 2 pounds. They can spend up to four weeks fishing at sea, diving more than 1,000 times a day.

I find it interesting that researchers at the Phillip Island Nature Parks organization pay such close attention to a species whose behaviors are so predictable. The precise logistics of their entry onto the beach is unchanging, evening after evening. 

As the sky darkens, a hush falls over the crowd in the reviewing stand. I feel like a paparazzi lying in wait. A sense of expectancy rises as the surf pounds the shore. There’s a murmur of voices: “Where are they? Do you see them?” 

And they’re off! Penguins head for home./Photos courtesyabove and at top courtesy Phillip Island Nature Parks

Suddenly, a few penguins emerge – surveying the hillside like sentries. They start to waddle up the dunes in pods that grow bigger and bigger – and seem unfazed by the humans watching them. (Photography is not permitted because of the birds’ sensitive eyes.) 

Max, who has watched this astonishing spectacle many times, guides me away from the onlookers to a dirt path he calls the penguin highway. It’s illuminated and makes for easy-to-see viewing. 

That night, more than 1,600 fairy penguins climb the dunes to their burrows to rest and feed their families. The event unfolds over about  50 to 60 minutes. Rangers tell us the all-time record was set in late 2022, when 5,000-plus penguins participated in the parade. 

If you go

Silversea offers a shore excursion to Phillip Island during some port calls at Melbourne and also at Phillip Island. To get an idea of what awaits you, look at the Phillip Island Nature Parks website. Also, check out the live burrow cam where you may observe egg sitting, new chicks and romance blooming. (I take a peek nearly every day.) Also, layer up. No matter the time of year, it gets cold and windy on the beach at sunset.