You’d think they’d make a sound. You’d think it might even be scary, having more than a million short-tailed shearwater birds flying overhead in an inky black cloud. But this near-silent phenomenon, witnessed at sunset on the edge of a beach cliff on Phillip Island between October and April, is nothing short of mesmerizing.
The unfathomable number of sleek birds, swooping back to their burrows after a day of fishing at sea, glide like living silhouettes through the pink and orange sky. I try to count them, but after only a minute I give up and just enjoy the beautiful sight.
Perched next to me on the sandy precipice overlooking Woolamai Beach is ranger Graeme Burgan from Phillip Island Nature Parks. He’s been exploring Phillip Island’s natural nooks and crannies since he was a child and it’s safe to say he’s passionate about shearwaters.
“I’ve seen this hundreds and hundreds of times,” he tells me, neck craned to watch the elegant, slender-beaked birds dance across the sky, “but I’ll never get sick of it.”
While they flock above us, Graeme regales me with some incredible facts. For example, in winter the oceanic fliers migrate 15,000km non-stop to the Arctic region, shutting off half their brains to rest while still airborne.
“They’re amazing,” Graeme says. “We’ve been studying them for years and still don’t know everything about them.”
Encroaching darkness and a chilly breeze spell the end of the spectacle for us but luckily for me, this is just a tastes of the eco tours on offer on the island. The not-for-profit conservation group manages five major attractions (including the shearwater bird watching experience) as well as some of the area’s spectacular beaches, wetlands and woodlands.
In the morning I embark on a peaceful solo drive around the island. It doesn’t take long to realise why this stretch of coastal paradise is worth conserving. Phillip Island is place where cape barren geese waddle the roads and penguin chicks pop their heads out of burrows, where sea caves thunder in the right swell and wildflowers cover the hillocks like pink clouds.
For a destination now famous for its Penguin Parade (beach front viewing stands that let you get up close with the colony without harming them), it’s scary how close Phillip Island came to having no penguins at all due to development and human interaction. Thankfully, in 1985, the Penguin Protection Plan was introduced. Now, much of the island has been rehabilitated to its natural environment and returned to the animals.
A more recent success is being talked about excitedly by the Phillip Island Nature Parks’ staff while I’m visiting the island. In September 2017, after 11 years of the Fox Eradication Program, the island was finally declared fox free. This achievement has paved the way for a release of the critically endangered Eastern Barred Bandicoot, providing a unique opportunity to save a native animal from extinction in Victoria.
I spend an hour strolling along one of the island’s many pristine beaches, dipping my feet and watching hooded plovers twinkle-toe across the sand.
Phillip Island is home to approximately 40 hooded plovers. Less than 600 of the birds are thought to live in Victoria and they are internationally recognised as a threatened species. Phillip Island Nature Parks has been monitoring the hooded plover population since the 1980s through nest records and banding the legs of chicks. The population is slowly increasing thanks to research, conservation and the assistance of the local community, and you can now spot them as you wander along the sand here.
At midday I’m off on an eco boat tour. We cruise by the coast of yellow sand, black basalt and red ochre before heading 2km offshore to the aptly named Seal Rocks. Here, 30,000 of the playful mammals sunbake on the shore and blow bubbles around our boat. The guides point out the enormous males, battling ferociously for the best spots on the rocks, and the tiny new-born pups, who manage to be even cuter than your wildest, seal pup-loving dreams. On the way back to the wharf, the captain throws in a few enormous arching turns, eliciting screams of delight from the more adventurous on the tour.
After a lunch and local beer at the Rusty Water Brewery I head over to The Nobbies, an ecotourism destination on the western tip of the island. Overlooking the Bass Straight, the clifftop boardwalk meanders along the coastline and offers spectacular views of the natural environment. At the end of the short walk, you’ll come across The Nobbies blowhole which, in the right swell and weather conditions, roars to life in a spectacular display of sea spray.
After my stroll I check out the nearby Antarctic Journey. Now, I’ve been to my fair share of educational centres but honesty? This one wins. Hands down. A joint venture between Phillip Island Nature Parks and WWF-Australia, the multimedia wildlife experience is unlike any other in Australia. Taking you on an interactive journey to the world’s most extreme continent, the centre lets you feel the cold in the Antarctic Chill Room, compare your thermal imaging to a penguin’s and try out a state-of-the-art augmented reality experience where you can pat a penguin, stroke a seal and marvel at a whale within arm’s reach.
Looking for some real life whales? May to October is the time when Humpback whales and Southern Right whales migrate from Antarctica along the Victorian coastline up north to warmer waters off Queensland for calving, before returning south to Antarctica in Spring. Visit Phillip Island at the right time and you can often view these majestic creatures on their journey.
After sunset, the road down The Nobbies is closed to protect the penguin habitat so it’s into town while it’s still a touch light for dinner at Harry’s on the Esplanade where mussels are the perfect warm summer night meal. While I sip my wine, I watch families out for an evening swim play in the pond-still waters then retire to the BBQ areas for a casual meal. The night air, cool and calm, slowly settles on the island and sends the beach-side haven sleep.
I spend the next morning at Churchill Island Farm. The site of the first European agricultural pursuits in Victoria, it’s now a piece of the state’s heritage. Coastline walks offer magnificent views of Phillip Island and Western Port, while the restored farmhouse and cottages provide a glimpse into the past lives of early Australian settlers and their farming practices. I enjoy a relaxing stroll through the fragrant cottage gardens and lawns. My favourite moment is meeting George the peacock. He’s nothing short of a show off, fanning out his colorful rear feathers and shaking them in my direction for a few last photos before the drive back to Melbourne.
Getting there: Phillip Island is a 90-minute drive from Melbourne.
When to go: Phillip Island Nature Parks’ eco tours run all year round except for the shearwater bird watching experience, which only runs from October to April
More information: Visit www.penguins.org.au