Last year Melbourne's long winter lockdown got an unexpected mascot in the little penguins of Phillip Island. Penguin TV launched to follow the island's most famous residents as they coast in each night on the inky-black waves to return to their burrows. On the first night it attracted 771,000 eyeballs: a lockdown streaming sensation was born.
Whether it was the comfort of revisiting an activity that most Victorians have done at least once as a child, or just looking upon the penguins' freedom with mounting envy, these plucky little birds had the same positive effect online that they have been having in person ever since the first tourists came to watch them in the 1920s.
And it is like going back in time at the moment, because reduced numbers and a dearth of international tourists means the nightly waddle-fest is far more intimate. The only jostling for position a the Penguin Parade is by the little penguins as they make their way home, to the "oohs" and "aahs" of an adoring crowd.
This all takes place on the Summerland Peninsula which used to be covered with beach houses but in what is thought to be the biggest government buyback for a single species in the entire world, the state purchased the land and dismantled and removed the houses, roads and lighting.
This was because researchers in the 1980s predicted the little penguins would be locally extinct by now. Instead, their numbers have swelled from 12,000 to 32,000. The project has been so successful, they recently had to move the main building to make room for up to 4000 breeding penguins. This is prime penguin real estate and the old building used to have penguins wander in every time they left a door open.
Taking the hint, the new centre – with an impressive concrete-and-wood entrance shaped like a penguin wing if viewed from the sky – is on less popular land and has made for a great COVID-era project for Phillip Island Nature Parks.
Staff were redeployed for weeding and conservation, the eastern-barred bandicoot was reintroduced to the area – you can watch them now darting around in the underbrush – and the penguins continued to be an online hit.
We are now viewing the parade with a Penguins Plus ticket that sees you on a viewing platform closer to the action and, despite the fact that this is not our first penguin rodeo, there is always a frisson of excitement as you try to spot the first penguin to hit the shores. After a number of false alarms, a small raft of water birds finally makes land and wanders past us. I am about to enter my fifth decade watching these guys and it really doesn't get old, only I do, and my kids – even the teen who wanted to stay in the flat playing Terraria – gets swept up in the action.
But the nightly parade is just one penguin feather in the cap of this island destination just under two hours south-east of Melbourne.
Over the course of a very busy weekend where we have communed with the rescued koalas at the Koala Conservation Reserve, which recently returned some rehabilitated koalas back to Gippsland after the 2020 Australian bushfires. We have had a farmhouse breakfast at nearby Churchill Island, with local Bimbadeen eggs served with Hollandaise sauce and a dash of lemon myrtle. And we've hit Smiths Beach with Phillip Island's surf community.
The standout however was a lunch at The Cape Kitchen, a cliff-top restaurant with ocean views only eclipsed by the dishes coming out of the kitchen. You might decide on a Gippsland scotch fillet with duck fat potatoes, roasted beans and Café de Paris butter, but the seafood is also a stand out especially the house cured ocean trout with roasted heirloom beetroot that is fresher than gusts of sea air. This really is destination dining now for this popular Victorian island. We waddle out to the car and head off to our Melbourne burrow totally sated.
Qantas flies to Melbourne from most other Australian cities. See qantas.com
The Penguin Parade,starts from $55 an adult and $30 a child. See penguins.org.au
The centrally located Phillip Island Apartments is a great base, two bedrooms from $285 a night. See phillipislandapartments.net.au
Paul Chai was a guest of Phillip Island Nature Parks.