I bet you didn’t know that the smallest penguins in the world could be found in Australia – the Blue Penguins. These cute creatures are about 30cm in height and also referred to as Fairy Penguins or (very creatively) Little Penguins. And each night they waddle home out of the cold angry ocean to their warm pint-sized burrows on Phillip Island, Victoria.
Located about 90 minutes southeast from Melbourne, Phillip Island is easily accessible by car. Or you will find many day tours catering for tourists heading to the island.
This island was surprisingly chocked full of things to do. I wish we had spent the night to enjoy everything available. As it was, we only had time for a day trip.
Phillip Island Nature Parks invited us to try out their 3 Parks Family Pass for 2 adults and 2 children. The pass costs AUD$104 (a saving of around $20 from the individual ticket prices), with under 4 years being free. It provides entry to the 3 most popular attractions on the island.
A short bridge connects the mainland to Phillip Island, and following the signs we made our way to the Visitors Centre. Here we picked up a free map (highly recommended) along with our 3 Parks Family Pass tickets. We chatted to the friendly staff that were able to provide advice on what activities would suit our family.
Part of the 3 Park Pass
Our first destination was on the northeast side of the island - Churchill Island Heritage Farm.
This area is an easy walk with kids, as they discover life on the island from a time long gone. Tall, handsome Clydesdale horses, Highland cattle, sheep, birds, pigs and more.
It provides a hands-on history about the early settlers who lived in the small wooden houses, as well as insight into the way of life in yesteryear.
Sure it’s a little touristy and visitors uninterested in Australian history may find it dull, but the pristine scenery is idyllic and kids will love getting up close to the animals. We spent about an hour walking around enjoying the grounds.
Some days they have milking demonstrations and wagon rides, however we only stayed a short while and didn’t wait around for that. More discoveries awaited and time was ticking!
Part of the 3 Park Pass
Our next pit stop was only 10 minutes further up the road - the Koala Conservation Centre.
I’ll be honest, having seen koalas in the wild and captivity in several other locations around Australia, I wasn’t expecting much. However this was a really beautiful part of the island and I was pleasantly surprised.
Throughout this area of natural bushland a network of treetop boardwalks has been created so you can witness the koalas in their natural habitat.
That may not mean seeing koalas up close (as they sleep for the majority of the day), but small red dots placed around the railings show you where the last sightings were and we were easily able to spot a few koalas high in the trees.
Wild wallabies, the adorable little cousins of kangaroos, were spotted in the bushland. Their inquisitive eyes locked on us like we were the most fascinating creatures they ever saw.
The visitor centre offers hot food and souvenirs, as well as a small yet informative hands-on educational display promoting awareness and conservation about Australia’s beautiful wildlife.
(Not part of the 3 Park Pass – pay separately)
There are plenty of places to eat around the island, however we stopped at a small supermarket in Cowes to grab a picnic lunch and enjoyed it on the coast.
With a hint of dread we watched the menacing grey clouds tumble across the sky and the foamy waves tossed to and fro. Nevertheless we decided nothing would stop our Adventure Boat Tour and hopped on board at the Cowes Jetty located at the end of Thompson Avenue.
This relatively new attraction allows visitors to experience rugged coastlines and remote wildlife that can’t be reached any other way. Oh, and it’s an adrenalin-laced thrill ride too.
Fast, electrifying, unpredictable. What every roller coaster enthusiast craves.
This would be an incredible boat ride on a clear sunny day. But on a stormy day with angry waves taller than a house pounding the boat, and winds strong enough to blow a small child over, it almost was almost terrifying. The kids were frozen to the bone and Mia (6 years) started crying due to the ferocity of the waves that tossed the boat. Caius (4 years) on the other hand was quite nonchalant the whole trip.
Finally we reached the Australian fur seal colony and we were able to stand and watch the seals absolutely oblivious to the storm, diving in and out of the water and sunbathing on the rocks. They were so beautiful and a joy to watch.
I was told on a clear day you may be able to spot whales, dolphins and penguins from the boat, but not on the day we went. The staff pointed out features of our surroundings and shared interesting information about the wildlife we spotted.
Even though the boat was stationary, the waves still pitched the boat from side to side. Josh clutched the railing on the side of the boat as he captured the scene. I silently prayed he wouldn’t tip over the edge due to his top-heavy camera gear (although that would have made for an awesome story, ha-ha).
The return trip was smoother as we rode with the swell rather than against it. I almost kissed the ground when we disembarked. It was a relief to be on solid ground again.
Part of the 3 Park Pass
This has to be the highlight of the island. Every evening a large crowd gathers on the Summerlands at sunset to quietly witness the smallest penguins in the world coyly returning home.
You can stay inside the visitors centre where it’s nice and warm and then about an hour before sunset the doors to the beach open and the crowds flock to secure prime vantage spots.
Unfortunately for us it was raining and very cold. We grabbed several blankets and umbrellas from our car while we waited for the sweet little penguins to creep out of the water.
As soon as the first penguins stumbled onto the beach, the hushed crowd broke into a harmonious “awwwwwww”. These flightless birds stood apprehensively, cautiously watching the sky for signs of their predator, massive Gulls and Sea Eagles. At the slightest sound, they got spooked and hastily retreated into the sea with a mad dash and flailing of wings. It was almost humours, but so darn cute at the same time. Soon more groups of penguins reached the beach and they began pouring out in droves, heading inland to their homes.
With the constant rain and cold wind we took a leaf out of the penguins’ book and retreated away from the beach. That was when we discovered the secret. The beachfront seating area is not the best seat in the house - the boardwalk was! On the boardwalk leading back towards the visitors centre you could spot any number of little penguins waddling by in their packs like tiny gun-less gangsters towards their burrows. They looked so much braver in the dunes, compared to their nervous performance on the beach.
This was our favourite part of the whole day. Second favourite: getting back into the car after sitting out in the rain for 2 hours.
Top Tips For The Penguin Parade
- Wear really warm clothes. It gets cold out on the beach at night. Better yet bring blankets. I mean it – it’s cold. We went in early autumn and it gets even colder in winter.
- Bring umbrellas or ponchos. Check the weather forecast the day before and be prepared.
- Bring something to sit on. The beachside concrete stepped seating is cold and hard. Bring a picnic blanket to sit on or if you want a little luxury for your backside, an outdoor cushion.
- No photos. The penguins are so scared and anxious. Not to mention bright lights can seriously damage their eyes. So there is absolutely no photography or videography allowed (including mobile phones).
- Don’t worry about going early to get front row seating. The best view is on the boardwalk once the penguins have come out of the water and are waddling to their homes.
We rolled into the car and left Penguin Island with two very tired, yet contented children. Thankfully after crossing the bridge to the mainland the glowing golden “M” of McDonald’s saved us from a late dinner so we could continue the drive home. The kids never made it past their first nugget. Both fell asleep clutching the food in their hands. To a mum that’s a sign of a great day filled with lots of exercise and fresh air.
If you are looking something uniquely Australian then Phillip Island is a fun day out. Pack up the kids, bring your woolly jumpers and picnic blankets and spend the day exploring this beautiful island. Even if you start getting drowsy by the end of the day don’t miss those darling fairy penguins. They are so darn adorable. I just wish I could pinch their cheeks.