Against the odds

The world’s small­est pen­guin has made one of Aus­tralia’s largest cities its home.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY DOUG GIMESY

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.

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