The Penguin Parade—where thousands of little penguins emerge from the ocean like clockwork at sunset to return to their burrows on Phillip Island, a mere 80-mile drive from Melbourne—is one of Australia’s star tourist attractions.

Given the popularity of the nightly march, I was worried about a theme-park vibe. But when I saw the first group of penguins come waddling out of the ocean, determined and adorable, I drew a giddy breath. It was just plain awesome.

When I was there in November, a strange phenomenon had occurred. The penguins, which are only found in southern Australia and New Zealand, typically breed once a year, in October, but, due to unseasonably warm waters, the island had seen its first chicks in late August and was preparing for a second brood.

“This is very unusual,” Roland Pick at Phillip Island Nature Parks, the organization that oversees the Parade, told me. “[The penguins are] incredibly sensitive to changes in sea surface temperatures.”

After learning about some of their other characteristics, I couldn’t help but anthropomorphize the diminutive seabirds. “They may pair up for life, or just a season or two,” Roland said. “If the males aren’t good breeders, the [females] kick them out. We even call it the divorce rate when they split up.”

Some may grumble that the parade puts the penguins on unnecessary display, especially because the animals are so sensitive. But, as Roland explained: “If we didn’t have the visitor center [where the penguin parade takes place], the colony wouldn’t be here now.”

Little penguins have bred for thousands of years along the Phillip Island coastline, but when the rural island was connected to mainland Victoria by a bridge in 1939, the interest in the penguins—and in owning beachside property on the island—skyrocketed.

Eventually, in 1985, the Victorian government decided to halt all new development and begin buying back private homes at Summerland Beach in (Read more...)

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