A childhood sadness that I’ve carried into adulthood is that polar bears and penguins can never be friends. Because, you know, they live in different hemispheres (of course!) and I think we all remember finding that out. And unlike me and my friends in the north, they don’t have easy access to email, or even a postal service.
Having spent the majority of my life as a northern-hemispherean, it is now extremely adorable to be living on the penguins’ side of the tracks. And on Wednesday we went to see them.
I don’t know if you know this but penguins only sleep for four minutes at a time – about ten to fifteen times a day. And they can stay in the water for between a day and a month. So of the approximately thirty thousand penguins that live on Philip Island, only a few hundred are coming back per night. And I don’t know if maybe you’ve heard this before but they come back to re-waterproof their feathers or to feed their baby or to tag out with their life partner, not to sleep.
Nevertheless, several hundred penguins is still a lot and they do all come ashore at once and it is the best thing you will ever see.
Probably the main thing about nature in 2019 is that it needs to be marketed correctly or the general populous ain’t gonna give a shit. And the penguin marketers of Philip Island have really hit the nail on the head: this nightly ritual has been named the penguin parade, and they are not wrong.
The Philip Island penguins are little penguins, which isn’t just a comment on their size but the actual name of the breed. They are small though, only about as tall as a big ruler. And, as you might know, unlike other penguins, their backs are blue not black. This colouring makes them ideally camouflaged in the water, but they stick out like a sore thumb on land. They are also comically bad at walking.
But nature has its ways.
So (maybe you’ve heard this but) a couple of hours before sunset they start to gather in the water, just offshore. This gathering is called a raft. And there they gather and wait. Waiting for sunset.
Then, just as darkness falls – when it is too dark for daytime predators but not quite dark enough for nighttime ones – in the safety of the huddle of the group, they waddle onto land. About seven hundred of them. Seven hundred penguins. A parade.
And I see them. And I lose my fucking mind.
Did I mention that they live in burrows? And in some cases, small wooden manmade houses that are dotted around the grassy hillside like tiny dog kennels. But its not dogs in there – it’s really small penguins.
We watch them come ashore from wooden bleachers. There are no photos allowed and it’s dark now but their white tummies are little beacons, flashing higgeldy piggeldy across the beach, past where we’re sitting, on to the hill, home.
They make a lot of noise as they walk, somewhere between a quack and a purr. Maybe closest to a dove, if that helps you to grasp it. And as we walk back up to the visitor centre the stragglers are still tottering alongside the boardwalk and all around they are quacking, purring, cooing. The sound reverberates. The bushes sing.
Almost at the end of the pathway we see a pair of penguins atop a hillock, only a metre away, almost within reach. They are motionless, their little wet-look bodies facing each other. A couple, probably. Their body language tells me they’re in love. And they have made it. They have traversed the dangerous territory of the beach. They have arrived safely. They have been reunited. They are taking a moment to survey from their hillock. They are home.
A version of this post was sent by email on the 4th August 2019 as part of Internet Care Package – a weekly memoir project in the form of a newsletter. It also includes links to the best things I’ve found on the internet each week and occasional updates on my theatremaking. This blog is a select archive of those emails. Subscribe to get them right in your inbox.