If you have ever paid a visit to Victoria’s Phillip Island, the reason for the trip was probably the nightly Penguin Parade, where wild little penguins emerge from the sea at sunset and waddle across the beach to their sand dune burrows.
Located on the south-western tip of the island at Summerland Beach, the Penguin Parade is one of Australia’s most popular wildlife attractions, with almost half a million people visiting each year. To cater for these hoards of tourists, floodlights illuminate the beach in front of concrete viewing terraces, and a network of boardwalks have been constructed over the sand dunes so that the delicate environment beneath is protected.
While today’s Penguin Parade is a big budget production, this postcard from 1940 shows a very different scene at Summerland Beach. It was an age of little environmental concern, when parking cars on the delicate penguin burrows was not given a second thought, and introduced foxes and pet dogs killed dozens of penguins.
The first organised trips to see the Summerland Beach penguins occurred in 1928, when local residents Bert West, Bern Denham and Bert Watchorn started to pick up visitors at the Cowes ferry pier and take them on a tour of the island for five shillings. However it was not until the 1940 opening of a bridge to the mainland that tourism to the island really took off, and so did the environment damage caused by the hoards of visitors.
The first efforts to protect the penguin colony date to 1930, when four hectares of land on the Summerland Peninsula was given to the people of Victoria by Mr and Mrs Spencer Jackson as a penguin reserve. Additional land was added to the reserve soon after by the Phillip Island Shire Council, with further land added in 1955, and formal regulations for the reserve being gazetted in 1956. Development of tourist infrastructure commenced in 1961 when fences and concrete viewing stands were erected along the beach, with the involvement of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Today management of the facilities is the responsibility of the Phillip Island Nature Parks, a not-for-profit body created by the State Government to conserve and protect the flora and fauna reserves of the island. The current facilities at Summerland Beach date to 1988 when a major redevelopment was carried out, with the opening of a visitor centre and carpark a few hundred metres away from the sand dunes, enlarged viewing terraces on the beach, and a network of boardwalks to link the two.
With the park receiving no recurrent operational funding from the government, Phillip Island Nature Parks is reliant on income from tourist operations to fund their activities. In 2007/08 the total operating revenue was almost $14 million, when a total of 487,251 people visited the penguin parade, with 63% of them being international tourists. With the competing interests of wildlife conservation and increasing the number of visitors, management needs to walk a fine line to avoid destroying the very reason for the park existing.
- History of the Penguin Parade from the ABC program ‘Penguin Island’
- History of the Summerland Peninsula by Roz Jessop, Environment Manager at the Phillip Island Nature Parks
- The potential impacts of climate change on the Phillip Island Little Penguin colony, a report from 2009
- Strategic Management Plan 2012–2017, Phillip Island Nature Parks
- Annual Report 2009/2010, Phillip Island Nature Parks