Small Group Phillip Island Penguin Tour with The Little Penguin Bus
Soak up the scenery in air-conditioned comfort on the leisurely afternoon drive from Melbourne down to Phillip Island. You’ll enjoy a short walk at The Nobbies and a drive around the island to meet some of the other furry and feathered residents, before heading to the Penguin Parade Visitor Information Centre to see the famously cute little penguins returning from the ocean at dusk. Duration: 8 hours (approx.)
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Little penguins are big business in Victoria.
Around 500,000 people make the 90-minute trip on Phillip Island penguin tours from Melbourne every year to see the Penguin Parade at sunset. The dash up the beach at Summerland by those formerly known as ‘fairy’ — now by the more politically correct title of ‘little’ — to their rookery, follows what can be up to four weeks of fishing in Bass Strait. Watching the penguins arrive home is an incredibly popular Melbourne tourist activity and has been for almost a century.
That said, the fortunes of Phillip Island’s little penguin colony have ebbed and flowed over the years. While the first reserve protecting the colony was established in the 1950s, by the 1980s the population had dwindled significantly due to human impact from the nearby Summerland residential estate and associated pests such as foxes and feral cats.
It was at that point that the buy-back of all homes in the estate began, to make way for a fully protected environment. The last homes were acquired and demolished in 2010 and the penguins have never looked back. Today the community numbers around 30,000 birds, which is considered healthy. Fox numbers are down to a single figure (and the hope is that all the remaining animals are female).
When it comes to booking a penguin tour from Melbs, the competition is pretty fierce and there are lots of operators about with fancy slogans like ‘Melbourne’s best’ and ‘Penguin-preferred’. For a small group Phillip Island penguin tour from Melbourne, The Little Penguin Bus is a great option. As the name suggests, this is a small bus that takes you to the penguins. No big surprises there. But these guys do rate particularly well on Trip Advisor and it soon becomes apparent why.
On this small group Phillip Island penguin tour, numbers are limited to between ten and twelve people and the service is very personal. Our guide Rob quickly establishes a good rapport with the group and takes the trouble to point out various points of interest along the way. Rob’s knowledge of Melbourne’s history and the towns we pass through is fabulous. The journey flies by.
We arrive on Phillip Island around 5pm and our first stop is the Nobbies — a rocky headland on the southwest tip of the island. The green grassy hills sloping down to the ocean are dotted with small wooden penguin condos.
It’s a short drive around the spectacular headland (not open to public access) past contented swamp wallabies and families of plump Cape Barren geese to the Penguin Parade Visitor Information Centre, which is where all penguin tours deposit their guests for the main event. Here we part company with Rob and join all the other visitors for the evening down on the beachside grandstands.
Guests have the option of booking seating for the parade in the General Viewing area or ‘Penguins Plus’ premium zone. I’ve opted for the guided ranger tour, which includes guaranteed front row seats right on the beach and commentary from a ranger. It seems well worth the extra investment. Our ranger Emily is personable and clearly knows her stuff.
Then at exactly 6.10pm the parade begins. Officially, 538 penguins cross the beach on our watch. There are only three or four small groups that choose to do so in front of our stand and I have to admit I was expecting to see a tide of penguins coming in. We’re told that there are lots of things that affect daily numbers — season, weather, fish supplies and so on. There had been a couple of days of unseasonably warm weather which can confuse the penguins into thinking that mating season has arrived early. Staying home to pursue this option would probably be far more appealing to your average penguin than a fishing trip in freezing Bass Strait (and you could hardly blame them for that).
Despite the modest showing, it’s an amazing experience and the crowd seems more than happy with their lot. You also get to see a lot more penguins in the rookery on the way back up to the Visitor Information Centre. With no photography allowed (it can stun the penguins), I succumb to purchasing the official souvenir Photoshop jobbie for this story.
All in all, this small group Phillip Island penguin tour from Melbourne is money extremely well spent. Go with an open mind and a realisation that this is Mother Nature at work and she’s not on call for the tourists. You’ll be thoroughly entertained. After all, who doesn’t love a parade?
Adam travelled as a guest of The Little Penguin Bus.
Additional images: Bigstock
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.