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The Phillip Island Reserve includes all the public land on the Summerland Peninsula, the narrow tip of land at the island’s western extremity. The reason for the reserve is the Little penguin, the smallest of the penguins, found only in southern Australian waters and whose largest colony breeds at Summerland Beach (around 2000 penguins in the parade area, and 20,000 on the island altogether). The Penguin Parade is inevitably horribly commercial, with four thousand visitors a night at the busiest time of the year (around Christmas, January and Easter). Spectators sit in concrete-stepped stadiums looking down onto a floodlit beach, with taped narrations in Japanese, Taiwanese and English. But ecological disaster would ensue if the penguins weren’t managed properly, and visitors would still flock here, harming the birds and eroding the sand dunes. As it is, all the money made goes back into research and looking after the penguins, and into facilities such as the excellent Penguin Parade Visitor Centre: the “Penguin Experience” here is a simulated underwater scene of the hazards of a penguin’s life, and there are also interactive displays, videos and even nesting boxes where you can watch the chicks. To escape the majority of the crowds, you can choose the “Penguin Sky Box” option – an exclusive, elevated viewing-tower with a ranger on hand to answer questions.
The parade itself manages to transcend the setting in any case, as the penguins come pouring onto the beach, waddling comically once they leave the water. They start arriving soon after dark; fifty minutes later the floodlights are switched off and it’s all over, at which time (or before) you can move on to the extensive boardwalks over their burrows, with diffused lighting at regular intervals enabling you to watch their antics for hours after the parade finishes – they’re active most of the night. If you want to avoid the worst of the crowds, the quietest time to observe them is during the cold and windy winter (you’ll need water- or windproof clothing at any time of year). Remember too that you can see Little penguins close to St Kilda Pier in Melbourne and at many other beaches in southern and southeastern Australia, perhaps not in such large numbers, but with far fewer onlookers.