Phillip Island Penguin Parade – Bunyip Tours on location

This week we caught up with Sabrina Bow from the Penguin Parade on Phillip island to learn about the Parade and what makes being a park ranger such an amazing job! 

 Sabrina Showing how much she loves being a ranger at the Parade
Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and the Penguin Parade.
I’ve been working at the parade for almost two years and always loved working with animals. I worked in an office for five or six years and got sick of it. So I changed the course of what I did and never looked back, really.

I always wanted to work with animals, but but also at a place that did the right in regards to animal welfare. So working at the parade, being a not for profit, self funded organisation, it’s great to show people and explain what we’ve been able to do with all the support that we get it. The work that we do follows in suit with my core beliefs as well.

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about the Penguin Parade?

 Penguin chilling out
As I said it’s non-profit and self-funded, so we don’t get any government funding at all. All of it comes from people who visit the parade and all the other locations on the island. It’s a great way we can show people where their money’s going and the positive effect it has. Not just at the parade, but 20% of the Island that the Nature Parks manages.

It’s not just a matter of the parade being a great chance for visitors to see the penguins, because it’s a pretty amazing experience, but also being able to have that interaction in safe surroundings for both penguins and people. It’s a great experience to have, and as an organisation our goal is to promote animal conservation and inspire change.

Q: Do you have a favourite part of working at the Penguin Parade?
I love interacting with the visitors and pointing out behaviours of the penguins. Quite often I’ll be on the boardwalks watching the penguins and sparking conversation with the visitors who are eager to point out behaviours and ask the questions about them. They are quite proud of themselves that they’ve picked up on different body language or a penguin that’s done something that’s a bit unusual.

It’s great seeing visitors reactions when they see a penguin for the first time. You can never be unhappy looking at a little penguin.

Q: What qualifications and experience did you have before working at the penguin parade?
I’m a zoo keeper by trade and spent about 3 years of work there, and after that, did some vet nursing. I’ve also done LOTS of volunteering. Stacks of volunteering.

This sort of industry, it’s not necessarily what’s on paper but it’s the knowledge you have, and it’s great to get that hands on experience.

Pretty much any experience i can get my hands on, I do. Some of my volunteering includes with the Eastern Barred Bandicoots Project and the Turn the Tide program which entails beach cleans, and also revegetation which is all through the Nature Parks as well.

Q:  Sounds like quite a journey.
Yeah, definitely. It doesn’t stop, but it’s great fun

 summerlands beach and the penguin parade
Q: How many people visit the penguin parade every year?
Last year we had 700,000 visitors. We’re not really having much of a quiet season anymore. In winter it used to be quiet, but now round about 700,000 people all through the year. Sort of across the whole nature park and development about 1.3 million people visit, so a lot. Seems amazing when you get those numbers.

Q: How many penguins, roughly are at the parade, and how many are on Phillip Island currently?
At the moment, the penguins are starting to come ashore and are ramping up for breeding season. So we’re just waiting for the numbers to sky rocket. The past couple weeks there’s anywhere between 250 and 600 penguins in any given night that cross the beach to come home. We’ve got about 32 thousand that live permanently on the island.

At the moment there’s about 47% percent of them that are home, and around about 1% of them are on eggs. Which is pretty early for breeding season, so that’s really exciting. Hopefully that means it will be a good breeding season, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Q: How long does breeding season typically run?
From now-ish to February, March. It’s dependent on the weather and availability of fish.

Q: Would you say that’s the best time to visit the penguin parade? Or do you have a favourite time?
I think the best time is September, October. Because there’s stacks of penguins arriving, up to two thousand or so penguins per night. There’s a lot of special interactions,  romancing, flirting and burrow renovation.

Then around the beginning of January, February is when chicks are here, and they’re running around chasing adults, that’s always hilarious because they don’t know who their parents are. So they’ll run after any adult they can find and harass them for food.

 Penguin Chicks
But then another favourite time of the year for me is moulting season. It’s just after breeding season, and they actually have to double their weight, so they end up about two kilograms and they come up on land for three weeks. They can’t go fishing for that entire time because they aren’t water proof and have to grow a whole new set of feathers.

It’s a pretty uncomfortable time for the so they get grumpy, and they look really scruffy. There’s always something that’s going on, but anywhere sort of between September, and I’d say April, would be a great time to come visit.

Q: Do you have a favourite penguin fact?
Yeah, I’ve got a couple actually. Depending on the demographic, depends on what I tell them.
So, one of my favourite facts is that Penguins do actually have knees, but the difference is that they’re fused together, which is why they waddle and they can’t bend them. It’s evolution slowly fading them out, but they still have them and they’re up inside their body cavities. Our knees are below our torso, which is why we can bend them, theirs are inside their torso.

Q: Can you tell us another favourite fact?
Kids tend to like the gross facts and stuff like that so I love to tell them this one. The force behind a Penguins Poo is strongest of any animal relative to it’s size.

Often you can see a penguin walking past and it will lift it’s tail and you can actually hear the pressure behind it. I’ve had visitors ask  “Was that what I think it was?” Yep, that’s exactly what it was.

Q: Hilarious! Can you describe your typical day on the job?

 Watching the little penguins arrive
It depends on the position that you are working on, if you are on the stands where visitors go to watch the penguins going coming out of the ocean across the beach, then you start by checking that the beach is safe for both visitors and penguins, then set up ropes to make sure visitors know where to site so they don’t get cuddled by a wave. Then you interact with visitors before and after you do a talk about the penguins and what to expect.
If you are running a tour, we set up all pf our equipment and make sure it’s ready to go then pick up our visitors and take them

Q: Who usually visits the penguin parade? Is there a typical visitor?
There is a huge range of visitors from international to domestic, lots of international visitors. During Christmas and other holidays, we get a lot of local people who come from Melbourne to spend the weekend, and there’s lots of holiday houses on the island. The population of the island sometimes doubles on long weekends and school holidays.

You can quite often tell, who is having what holiday depending on the visitors that come.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the attractions and amenities available at the parade?

 Penguins Plus at the Penguin Parade
A lot of people tend to not realize that it’s not just the penguins that are there. We’ve got a lot of Wallabies and at the moment Cape Barron Geese are breeding, so there’s a whole lot of little goslings running around everywhere.

We’ve got a fair bit to do inside the building as well. There’s penguin world, where you can go and read a whole lot of facts about penguins and also have burrows that are in the building, so you can look into a live burrow, see if there’s penguins in there, if they’ve got chicks or eggs, or anything like that. It gives you a really close view on a penguin and what they do when they’re home.
We’ve also got a pledge wall. Which is something to educate people on marine debris and stuff that we’ve found on the beaches. There’s a display on the wall and people can actually make their own pledge on what small change that they can action to make the marine life healthier.

There are a number of different platforms to view the penguins from including Penguins Plus, Underground, and the main stands, along with a number of private tours available. We’ve got a good café and theatre as well that has a video going which is educational. So there’s lots to see.

Q: What would you say is the most unique and fun part about the parade?
The fact that I keep on learning new things about these penguins, there is always something. And its knowledge that I can tell our visitors.
I find that it proves how lucky we are. Where I work I get to see the sunset over the ocean and watch wild Penguins coming home under a blanket of stars. On top of that I get to share it with people.
These guys are pretty amazing, they are birds that don’t fly and dig wholes in the ground and sleep for four minutes at a time, I love seeing people’s reactions when they see all of this themselves.

The diverse range of conversations that i have are enever ending. Ranging from visitors who have never seen a penguin and don’t know it’s a bird, so people with PHDs, to kids who use bigger words that some adults.

Q: Do you have any advice, people visiting?
People tends to think the parade is just the beach where the penguins run across to go home. But the penguins that do come up that night will stay at least a few days, and then others leave in the morning. So it’s sort of like shift work.

 Penguins storming up the beach
So, especially in winter, there may not be many penguins coming home, but there are always penguins up on land. What I always encourage people to do is to maybe only spend half of their time visiting the beach, watching the penguins cross the sand, and then make sure they experience everything and give themselves as much time to explore all there is to see up along the boardwalk and surrounds. Because that’s where you get the closest interactions with the penguins.

If you do come during a particularly busy time, and there seems to be a lot of people on the stands, there are penguins up on land, and they’ll come out as soon as the sun sets. They’ll start calling each other and come out and get some fresh air, because the burrow can get pretty smelly, especially in summer. You can see them first, and then once people head off the stands, you can head down to the beach, and there’s less people and you can see the penguins better.

So you sort of just do it the other way around. That’s when I tend to do when I go visit, when I’m not working haha.

Q: Is there anything we’ve missed, that you would like to say, or suggest?
Just something that I’ve sort of learned, years ago I used to travel. I used to be a photographer, so I took photos of everything. I then got to a stage where someone asked me about somewhere I’d been and I couldn’t remember because I’d spent the whole time looking through the camera.

I find that people, especially with technology today, we get so wrapped up in taking photos to prove where we’ve been, we tend to forget to make the most of where we are at the time. So, especially at night time, because we’re not allowed to take photos of the penguins at night, you’re not going to get a good photo anyway and it will end up blurry.

Just enjoy it for what it is and make memories, and you’ll be able to have those memories and they’ll be better than any photo that you can get.

Amazing. Thanks so much Sabrina.
It was a pleasure.

Visit the little penguins at the penguin parade on one of our Phillip Island Tours!