Against the odds
The world’s smallest penguin has made one of Australia’s largest cities its home.
The world’s smallest penguin has made one of Australia’s largest cities its home.
IT’S A NIGHT LIKE any other in the bayside suburb of St Kilda. A frosty wind is blowing and the lights of the city dance on the water, tinted pink and purple by the retiring sun. As grand as this scene is, it’s not what’s drawn me to the rocky breakwater at the end of St Kilda Pier. I’ve come for something far more captivating, although largely unexpected, just a long stone’s throw from the centre of Australia’s second-largest city, Melbourne.
In the fast-fading light, and just past the pier kiosk, I hear a quiet crunch – the shuff le of light feet on gravel. Then I see it – a little character, no taller than a school-kid’s ruler, waddling out from between two large rocks on the beach side of the wall. It’s in no rush, which is a true treat for me and the other keen observers who’ve come to witness the night-time ritual of St Kilda’s charming little penguins.
“What’s that?” I hear you ask. “Penguins?” That’s right. There’s a 1400-strong huddle of the birds right under the noses of 5 million Melburnians, just 5km from the city centre. How did they come to settle in bustling Port Phillip Bay?
For the answer we need to dive back in time to 1956, when the 750m-long rock wall I’m now standing on was built to form a harbour for sailing events during the Melbourne Olympic Games. After the athletes moved on the penguins moved in. And while no-one’s exactly sure when this happened, locals recorded two breeding pairs in 1974. Before then there was only the occasional penguin seen in the bay and under the old St Kilda Pier, but these were thought to be wanderers from the 32,000-member Phillip Island colony, a 110km swim to the south-east. Fast-forward 12 years to 1986, when a proposal to redevelop St Kilda Harbour prompted Monash University seabird expert Professor Mike Cullen to visit the breakwater.
St Kilda Council offered Mike a commission to report on how the potential work would affect the penguins. He declined and instead embarked on a long-term study of the colony. From 1986 to 1998, Mike and a team of volunteers conducted fortnightly f ield trips to the St Kilda Breakwater, often f inishing after midnight. His research was invaluable, providing insight into the colony’s feeding, mating and breeding habits.
By his side was Neil Blake. Then a City of Port Phillip park ranger, Neil now holds the title of Port Phillip Baykeeper, which means that these days he’s charged with caring for all the wildlife in the bay. He remains, however, particularly passionate about the penguins. When I asked him what the average person could do to help look after the birds, his reply was instantaneous and impassioned. “Stop the drop!” he said. “The amount of plastic litter f lowing to the bay from streets in its catchment is a looming disaster for the ecosystem. A lot of people don’t realise that suburban streets are connected to the bay by the stormwater drains. So a ‘single-use’ plastic bottle dropped on a street 15km from the coast can still visit the penguins.
“Plastics exposed to UV light over time become brittle and break into smaller pieces that can be swallowed by fish, which are food for penguins. So, if you spot plastic rubbish on the street, wherever you are, whenever you can, pick it up and bin it!”
“I HAVE OFTEN had the impression that, to penguins, man is just another penguin – different, less predictable, occasionally violent, but tolerable company when he sits still and minds his own business,” renowned British polar scientist Dr Bernard Stonehouse once said about penguins.
Little penguins, like all of the planet’s 18 penguin species, are only found in the Southern Hemisphere. They breed along
the coastline of southern Australia from Western Australia and South Australia to Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. They also call the coast of New Zealand and the Chatham Islands, 800km east of NZ’s South Island, home.
For years, the St Kilda colony has held strong at a healthy 1400 individuals. But, Neil says, you’ll never see them en masse because most are usually out feeding. In winter you’ll likely f ind 100 or so penguins ashore at any one time, with this number tripling to 300 when they’re rearing chicks (Sept–Feb).
They spend 80 per cent of their time at sea, and 1–3 days at a time away from the colony foraging for food. On average they roam no more than 13km in a trip, and complete up to 800 dives a day, to a depth of 10m.
While all this behaviour is relatively normal for little penguins, there’s one difference that makes these chaps truly unforgettable: they’re probably the only penguin colony in the world that lives, feeds and forages exclusively in a bay.
Sure, you can visit other capital-city penguins – in Boulders, South Africa; Manly, NSW; and Bicheno, Tasmania. Or you can swing by a handful of alternate mainland Australian colonies, such as at Warrnambool, Sydney and Gippsland. However, as Dr Tiana Preston explains, the Port Phillip Bay birds are extraordinary: “The fact that this species is so sensitive to human activities, both those that impact the land and the water, makes it remarkable that a colony of penguins would not only establish itself, but also grow and f lourish within such a heavily used urban environment.”
What I f ind especially interesting (and equally concerning) is that, because these penguins only live in Port Phillip Bay, they’re the only colony in the world that can be seriously impacted by drought. Tina, who completed her PhD on the foraging behaviour, diet and reproductive success of this colony, explains that little penguins eat about 20 per cent of their body weight a day, feeding mainly on small f ish species such as the Australian anchovy and southern garf ish.
“The local availability of this food source is driven by nutrients that are carried in by the nearby Yarra River,” Tina says. “So when we have a drought, fewer nutrients are carried into
“I have often had the impression that, to penguins, man is just another penguin – different, less predictable, occasionally violent, but tolerable company when he sits still and minds his own business.”
the bay, which impacts f ish stocks and subsequently the penguins, which have a greatly reduced level of breeding success. Nowhere else in the world are penguins so directly impacted by drought.”
This unique and enclosed home range also makes them particularly interesting for other penguin researchers.
Dr Andre Chiaradia, one of the world’s leading penguin ecologists based at Phillip Island Nature Park, explains the appeal. “Unlike most other penguin colonies, [these birds] living only in the contained environment of the bay, allow researchers to more easily build a complete picture of what actually impacts all aspects of their life cycle, what impacts their survival and exactly what puts them at risk,” he says. “It’s like studying an animal in a huge aquarium, but in the wild – and that’s pretty unique and special.”
LIKE SEALS AND some albatross species, penguins fall into a unique group of animals that rely on two distinctly different habitats for their survival. While most of their life is spent at sea foraging for food, an essential part of their life history occurs on land – courtship, breeding and moulting. Because of this, they’re also subject to two different, but equally impactful, sets of human disturbances.
At sea, overf ishing, oil spills and entanglement in f ishing line, plastic bags and other forms of litter that come into the bay can harm them. On land, introduced predators such as dogs and foxes, as well as inappropriate contact with humans can also take its toll. Helping watch over this unique colony is a team from Earthcare St Kilda. Formed in 1989 and with a base of more than 180 volunteers, it now works to help keep the pier free of rubbish, guide tourists at night when the colony is most active, and continue the important work started by Professor Cullen decades ago.
Leading this research when I visited the pier was Zoe Hogg, an extraordinar y 82-year-old retired analytical chemist, who remains an active double-bass player, rowing coach and artist. When a researcher catches a penguin it complains loudly – squawking and whacking its f lippers against the hands that hold it. After she’s finished wrangling one on the breakwater, I ask Zoe why she has, for 28 years, risked penguin wrath to weigh, tag, sex and count them. “When I moved to St Kilda I wanted to become part of the community, I wanted to do something to help out nature,” she says, laughing.
“I heard about this project, went along to help out a few times and, well, I never left.”
Research, Zoe says, is conducted fortnightly to monitor the colony’s health and wellbeing, while 365 nights a year volunteers guide aficionados along the breakwater to see the penguins. Ensuring people don’t use f lash photography or stand on rocks near where penguins build nests is vital to maintaining a human– bird balance.
I witnessed this firsthand – their vigilance affording all who were there the chance to watch the penguins go about their business, socialising and waddling from one location to another unperturbed by our presence.
THE ABILITY OF THIS SPECIES to establish itself in such a unique urban environment is marvellous in many ways. But, for me, the most extraordinary aspect is def initely the opportunity people have to see wild penguins so close to home, next to one of Australia’s most densely populated cities.
We humans have a habit of changing environments around us with little concern for the impact on other species. In many instances wildlife suffers as a consequence, but not in this case. By constructing a wall of rocks 60-odd years ago we inadvertently created a place where a colony of industrious penguins could establish itself and thrive.
As Melbourne continues to expand its physical and environmental footprint, and climate change continues to bite, I have to wonder if they’ll still be there in another 60 years.
But, with ongoing research and the dedicated efforts of people such as Zoe and her fellow volunteers, I’m optimistic this little penguin colony can be a beacon – shining a light on the fact that if we care enough and pay attention, we can enjoy living with wild creatures right on our doorstep.
Twice monthly a volunteer group goes out at night to this breakwater to monitor the little penguin community surviving within cooee of the Melbourne CBD. Found only in Australia and New Zealand, the little penguin is the world’s smallest species of these marine birds.
During the breeding season, little penguin pairs lay two eggs, about the size of chicken eggs, into nests protected in burrows. Both parents take turns incubating them and later feeding the chicks.
The distinctive adult coloration – steel-blue to black on the back, head and wings, with soft white bellies – helps camouflage little penguins while swimming at sea.
Penguin researcher Dr Zoe Hogg and Kate Bulling check a chick for ticks and fleas – parasites that can significantly affect the health of a young penguin.
Cleaning rubbish from around Melbourne’s little blue penguin nesting area is a constant task for the volunteers who watch over the health of the colony.