Mercifully safe, at least for that night, their urge to breed seemed to exceed good sense.
And humanity often disappoints, particularly where wildlife and people interact. My experience as a volunteer penguin guide was that, of those who came to watch, many wanted only a good photo. And, at this place where so many from diverse nationalities came together, the only shared conviction was that the little penguins were “so cute”.
There were marvellous nights on my shifts. The breakwater is a long walk down the pier from St Kilda beach, and it feels like an oasis – removed and special. Ironically, being something of an island is what attracted the penguins in the first place.
Out on the huge bluestones, there was always plenty to see even before the stars showed up. Native water rats swam about or gorged on shellfish; the odd duck or swan group cruised. Paddle-boarders and yachts left and returned. Even the stars seemed brighter.
We’d tell people about the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and the breakwater and tower built to host the yacht races. How penguins from Phillip Island found St Kilda and stayed to breed; how it’s easier to hunt for food there, being closer to the anchovy and pilchard shoals in the bay.
“What time do the penguins arrive?” everyone wanted to know. Soon enough, they would.
Penguin-watching became a racket as the peeps of chicks competed with the loud, guttural honks of courting couples and arguing rivals. The penguins courted, mated and fed their voracious young.
There were people of all ages, babies, toddlers, grandparents, teens. I loved being there, sometimes. But many people ignored requests to minimise disturbance to the birds they were there to enjoy. They used flash, climbed on the rocks, smoked, crowded the penguins and had little respect. It was as if they were watching a show; they seemed not to understand these were live and vulnerable creatures.
Fishers turned the rocks of the breakwater into impromptu bars from which to drink and cast a line. Researchers rescued penguins with fishing line round their legs and plastic bags in their nests. Tragically, people attacked at least one penguin. Another was souvenired – only to be found later, trudging the streets of a northern suburb.
It’s always been free to see the penguins at St Kilda breakwater. But what you don’t pay for, you tend to take for granted, maybe even treat with contempt. If we’re serious about penguin welfare and preserving this wonderful natural asset, things must change.
Earthcare St Kilda has the same modest demands it did when I was a guide five years ago, yet nothing has changed. It’s incomprehensible that Parks Victoria doesn’t act on its suggestions. Numbers must be capped, fishing bans enforced, and crowd control taken seriously. Perhaps the solution for the free-for-all is to charge a small fee and employ security staff, and enact a temporary ban on photography, to be reassessed in a year.
I left the penguin guide program because I wasn’t cut out for the job. Those who do it love the penguins but are fed up and conflicted. “I can’t turn my back on them,” wrote one on social media. Neither should we.
Debbie Lustig is a former St Kilda penguin guide.