Penguin Island near Perth offers a good day out. It is a 12.5 ha island only 700 metres from the town of Rockingham, a few minutes in the regular ferry. The waters surrounding the island make up the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park. The marine park is home to bottlenose dolphins and rare Australian sea lions.
The island is home to the largest population of Little Penguins in Western Australia - the smallest species of penguin. This bird, which is about 43 cm (16 in) tall, lives on the coastlines of southern Australia and New Zealand – some sightings have been made in Chile. Birds nesting on the mainland have declined because of predation by foxes and cats, and colonies are now largely confines to offshore islands. At sea they are vulnerable to hazards such as discarded plastics and fishing line, oil pollution and sharks.
People can walk to Penguin Island at low tide; though they might end swimming as unpredictable tide rises can be dangerous. The island contains a picnic area with seating but bring your own supply of food and drink as you cannot buy any when over. Waterless composting toilets are available.
Penguin Island has many geographical features, such as cliffs, sea caves, headlands, beaches, coves, notches, natural bridges and many wave-cut platforms. There are walk trails and boardwalks around the island to ensure the safety of the breeding areas of the nesting birds. Apart from the penguins, The island has one of the largest pelican rookeries in Australia, the curious kings skink and over 16 species of seabirds. It is also one of the few places you can spot a quokka, an animal about the size of a domestic cat. It’s also a popular place for swimming, snorkelling, diving and picnicking.
You can go penguin watching at the Penguin Experience Island Discovery Centre. Their birds come from rejection by the mothers as chicks or through injury. In the former case the centre rears them and in the latter case nurses them back to health. In nature these birds spend most daylight hours at sea feeding or hidden away in their burrows. To ensure that everyone can enjoy a penguin experience, the Department of Environment and Conservation host three daily penguin feeding shows at the Discovery Centre at 10.30am, 12.30 and 2.30pm.
Quite a bond has developed between the girl feeding them and the penguins. She knew the habits of each bird minutely. Some preferred the food to be thrown to them in the tank while others liked being hand fed. One bird for some strange reason actively disliked her and preferred being fed by someone else.
Little penguins usually live for 10 years but some survive for 20 years. About 15% of adults die each year. They begin breeding at the age of three or four. They are monogamous and remain faithful to their partner over successive years, though they will find another mate if their current one dies. They also display site fidelity to their nesting colonies and nesting sites over successive years.
During a two to three week period in December or January, new feathers grow and the old fall out. Penguins cannot go to sea during this period as their feathers must be watertight to survive at sea. While molting they often stand in the open to cool and are vulnerable during this time.
They are fantastic swimmers. Little penguins can swim 8 km an hour and dive to 60 metres to catch pilchards, whitebait and other small fish. The wings of these flightless birds have evolved into flippers while their feathers form a waterproof insulating coat, which streamlines them in the water. Before coming ashore they assemble close by in small groups or 'rafts' before landing on the island an hour or so after sunset.
Just as well the Penguin Experience Island Discovery Centre is there for otherwise people would be wondering why this island holds the name Penguin Island as these little birds seldom appear being away at sea or hidden in their burrows.
Boardwalks and Walk Trails
There are new boardwalks which provide access between the jetty, The Penguin Experience Island Discovery Centre, picnic area and the (only) toilets for people with disabilities. The park authorities request that the access on the island is limited to walk trails and demarcated beaches only. The rest of the island is a bird sanctuary area and access is strictly prohibited.
There are cavernous reefs which surround both Penguin Island the nearby smaller islands. These reefs support a variety of subtropical and temperate invertebrates which include sea starts, molluscs and urchins as well as numerous fish species. Good snorkelling and diving can be found around these reefs.
Mersey Point is the departure point for the Penguin Island ferry. Ferry tours operate from mid-September through to early June and leave on an hourly basis. There is a small store and café at the point where you can buy your ferry tickets and also any light snacks to take with you to the island. There are no shops on the island.
The Mating Game
After the ‘courtship walk’ where the female can lead a group of up to 8 males, and after the dominant male has one out, the female selects a nesting site and forms a shallow depression in the ground where she will lay her eggs. Both the male and female will aid in the building of the nest. The female will usually lay around 2 eggs and both parents will incubate the eggs until they hatch which is usually 32-35 days.
The Australian pelican is Australia's largest flying bird and a colony of these birds have nested on the north end of the island since late 1998. The nesting period varies according to the availability of food and Water but normally between August and November.
Pelican Breeding Colony
Penguin Island is home to one of only nine breeding colonies of Australian Pelican known along the West Australian coast. You are requested not to get to near the pelicans and stay on the walk trails and boardwalks as they can be sensitive to disturbance and move to even more secluded areas. Also young pelicans have been known to fall over the cliff and drown.
Tripled in Numbers
The Pied Cormorants numbers have tripled on the islands over the past 10 years. These birds are masters at diving from the surface and pursuing their prey at depth. Their white underside makes them less conspicuous to the fish and enhances their hunting method. Large amounts of guano are produced by the Pied Cormorants and the Pelicans.
On Seal Island in particular you can see masses of Pied Cormorant. The striking black and white bird at times resembles the pelican but it has a striking white face and yellow or orange facial skin. They prefer the rocky outcrops or just sitting around on piers and buoys. They are Australia’s most common cormorant.
Unique in their Breed
These Sea Lions are the only pinniped (fin-foot) that is found only in Australia and aside from Seal Island, lives along parts of the western and southern coastline. Males weigh about 3 times more than females at roughly 300kgs. They have dark brown fur with pale necks while the females backs are grey with a creamy fur front. Unlike other Sea Lions, breeding can occur at any time from January to June and pups are born on rocky beaches and mortality is high in the first 6 months.
Australian Sea Lions
The Australian Sea Lions spend most of the year on Seal Island. The Australian variety is the rarest in the world and has been given protection under State Legislation. No one is permitted to land on Seal Island while these mammals seem harmless and sleepy enough, they can delivery a nasty bite if aggravated.
Seal Island lies north of Penguin Island and is sanctioned by National Park laws prohibiting anyone to go ashore there. The island is home to a colony of Australian sea lions which can be seen from the water, lazing around in the sun on the small beach area.
As you cruise around the islands you will see vast colouration differences in the ocean. The pale turquoise colour is depicted when there is a sandy bottom and the darker green colour where there is extensive areas of seagrass. These vegetation areas are important in the life cycle of the many fish that inhabit the area. The Seagrass also helps to stablise the sandy bottom.
The Silver Gull has become a successful scavenger and will hang around the main picnic area of the island waiting for handouts. When the tourists are not around however, they will search out worms, fish, insects and crustaceans. While native to the area, the increasing numbers are somewhat unnatural. During the 1940’s when surveys were recorded, there were estimated to be only around 200 pairs. Today there is something like 4000 pairs. This is largely due to the feeding by the public and adjacent urban development.
The Silver Gull
The silver Gulls are in great abundance on the island and will bombard you the moment you step off the ferry… reminiscent of Hitchcock’s movie ‘The Birds’. They make more noise than anything else especially at breeding time or when you get near their young – which most times you don’t realise as they are hidden in the vegetation.