Kangaroo Island, off the south coast of Australia near Adelaide, is home to a large colony of fairy penguins. It isn’t a big island– you can easily drive round it in a day, although at least half of the roads are corrugated dirt which you don’t want to take too fast. A couple of very tiny towns have cafes and shops, where you can buy bare necessities. The terrain is mostly flat and un-interesting farmland but there are nice beaches, some very user-friendly, others with fierce waves and rocks eroded into fascinating shapes. There are one or two gum forests, rapidly being denuded by very cute koalas, who were introduced to the island by humans, and have done very well, at the expense of the eucalyptus trees.
The ferry from the mainland took about an hour. As soon as we drove off the boat, at a short wooden pier, we saw a sign on the road saying “Give Way to Penguins,” with a picture of several penguins on a yellow triangle. They aren’t normally active on land during the day though, so we didn’t see any then. At dusk we took a tour, where a ranger in a dark green uniform told us all about them, and showed us some nests, which are simply flat areas set into the rocks, many very close to each other, barely protected by small overhangs. The colony covers several acres of rocks. Our guide, a young woman, told us that they go out to sea to eat in the mornings, spend all day fishing and then come back to their colonies at dusk, but because the breeding season was over, there was little activity right now. Later, when the tour was over, Maria and I walked back to the car by a path that took us past some rocks, and there, by flashlight, we watched two penguins making their way up from the water. Their progress was very slow. They jumped from rock ledge to rock ledge with long pauses in between, while they sat and cooed at each other. Occasionally they made a brief concerted rush over a short distance, when there was a flat level space. Then they’d stop again on a rock ledge, just hanging out and chatting a little, until they were ready for next jump forward. They didn’t seem to be bothered about getting anywhere in a hurry.
“At the rate they’re going, they’ll take all night to get back to their nests,“ I remarked.”
“Yes . . . and the guide said they go back out in the morning,“ mused Maria. “That can’t be right. They‘d spend all day going to and fro, they‘d either have no time to rest or they‘d have no time to fish.“
“Well, biologists develop their theories about animal behavior from watching a few of them. It certainly doesn’t mean that all of them behave that way. I bet the ones they watched had nests near the water, whereas those nests we saw were at least four hundred yards from the water, over difficult terrain. So I don’t think they go out every day,” I stated authoritatively.
This theory was born out when I was walking on some rocks in the early afternoon and came upon a couple of nests with adult penguins in them. They leaned forward and made hissing and clucking noises at me when I bent down to peer at them under their rock ledge, until I apologetically and hastily retreated. Sitting quietly nearby, so that my presence wouldn’t be bothersome, I heard them making that sweet cooing purring call to each other.
These are the smallest type of penguin, black and white and blue-ish, and only about eighteen inches tall when they stand up. They look pretty much like any other bird when they are floating on top of the water; it isn’t until you get close that you see they have those cute little round-ish heads, and longer bodies than most birds. Their wings are just short vestigial arms. They don’t fly at all, but have powerful webbed feet that make them very good swimmers, and they can disappear underneath the water very suddenly, for long periods. Those same webbed feet make the penguins slow and clumsy on land. Much of the wildlife in Australia (and New Zealand) suffered enormously when white people turned up with cats and dogs, since the animals had been living for many centuries with very few of those kinds of predators, and had adapted to a lifestyle that didn’t take cats and dogs into account. On Kangaroo Island the authorities are trying to protect the future of the penguins with a program to trap feral cats and dogs. I was impressed that there was such a healthy colony of the birds, considering how slowly the ones I saw were moving; they would certainly be easy prey for cats and dogs, and it wouldn‘t just be feral animals that went for them.
Well after dark on our first evening, we were driving back to our campsite when we passed the sign saying ‘Give way to Penguins.’
“Slow down,” Maria admonished me, “there might be some penguins here, this is where they have to cross the road to get to their colony.” Sure enough, there in the headlights was a cute little penguin standing on the edge of the raised pavement on the seaward side of the road. It was clearly somewhat traffic-trained, as it was looking to left and right. Switching the engine off, we sat there, willing it to cross. Finally it dared to jump onto the road and slowly, cautiously, began to waddle over, still looking nervously to left and right. Maria and I were in agony: “Oh, go, please just go, hurry! Go!” we urged – very quietly, of course.
Not until it was about two thirds of the way over did it really commit, and then it covered the rest of the road at a penguin’s version of a fast run, looking straight ahead, hopping up onto the pavement at the other side to disappear into the rocks. Maria and I collapsed in relieved laughter and delight at being first hand audience to such a comic strip.
When we went to get the ferry back to the mainland, three days later, we had to wait at the pier, and I went walking amongst the rocks near the road. I found a few penguin skeletons, some squashed absolutely flat. Had the guilty drivers tried to dispose of the carcasses so no one would know they hadn’t obeyed the sign, or did the locals remove the gruesome evidence in order not to offend the tourists? In any case, clearly, the penguins were not all as lucky or smart as the one we’d watched. I said a quick prayer and apologized for the damage that we humans have done. Truthfully, I think it was a healthy colony of birds – and I hope it remains so.