So, I live across the street from penguins.
Yes, real penguins! And no, you haven’t missed anything — I’m still living in Melbourne. Believe it or not, Australia is actually home to the world’s smallest species of penguin. Here, they’re known mostly as fairy or little penguins; in New Zealand (the only other country where they live), they’re usually called blue penguins. Sadly, while these little guys used to be fairly common on mainland Australia, human activity and predation by cats, dogs and foxes have led to steep declines in their populations over recent decades. Today, fairy penguins live mostly on islands off the coast of southern Australia. Still, a couple of key mainland colonies live on at both the Manly Wharf in Sydney and the St. Kilda Pier just outside of Melbourne.
Now, the St. Kilda Pier is practically in my frontyard, which makes what I’m about to say pretty embarrassing. Until yesterday, in almost four months of living in St. Kilda, I’d seen just one tiny fairy penguin — and even that spotting was incidental, when a friend and I just happened to head down to the pier to eat some late-night falafel.
It’s something I face a lot in my long-term travels: when I live somewhere, settling into work routines and hanging out with friends, I forget to explore. I forget I’m traveling. Those penguins across the street? As animal-obsessed as I usually am, I took them for granted. There was always tomorrow, you know?
Except when there’s not. Now that I’m down to my last week in Melbourne, I’ve gotten my ass back in gear and started to re-embrace my inner tourist. Obviously, finally visiting my penguin neighbors was a top priority.
After a gloriously sunny day (seriously, it’s incredible how much you appreciate some sun after a stretch of cloudy, windy days in this city!), Ethan and I headed down to St. Kilda Beach for a sunset walk. As much as I’ve taken for granted some opportunities to explore Melbourne recently, I rarely forget to appreciate the sunsets here. They say Melbourne often has four seasons in a day, and it’s true. The upside? The skies are always changing, and almost always amazing.
On our way down the pier, we passed a man tossing bread in the air for the seagulls. The birds hovered in the air, pressed in a cluster against the strong wind, and took turns diving for pieces of bread. We had to wonder if they were using up twice as much energy as they were consuming holding themselves against that wind, but it was thoroughly entertaining to watch.
But enough about seagulls, right?
The penguins like to nest in the rocks down to the right of the pier. Between the viewing platforms and groups of tourists, you really can’t miss them. The important point is to go around sunset when the birds return ashore from fishing all day. I’ve heard friends say they visited the pier and only saw one or two, but we saw at least a half dozen hiding in the rock crevices and a couple of others hopping between rocks and showing off.
It’s time for a disclaimer: I don’t have many photographs of the penguins, and definitely not very good ones. It was dark by the time we reached the rocks, and it’s important that visitors don’t use flash photography as it disturbs the penguins. Your best bet for viewing the penguins is to bring flashlights covered with red cellophane, which is endorsed by the guides that I hear are around the pier in the summer. Sadly, a lot of tourists seemed to be prioritizing their photographs over the animals.
There are more famous places to visit fairy penguins (Phillip Island is an especially popular day trip to make from Melbourne, for instance), but the fact that these cute little penguins live right here in the outskirts of the city is pretty incredible to me. Plus, St. Kilda’s nearly always worth a sunset walk (just skip the colder, rainy days!).
Notes for Visiting
The St. Kilda Pier can’t be missed from the beach here. If you’re taking a tram from the city, routes 96 and 16 to Stop 136 (The Esplanade) are your best bet. Arrive a half-hour or so before sunset and expect to see more as it gets darker. Please don’t forget to turn your flash off — remember, red light is permitted if you’re especially keen to get some photographs!