These cute flightless birds are tremendous swimmers, spending days out on the ocean and surfing back to shore at dusk.
Little Penguins on Montague Island are distinguished by being members of the smallest penguin species on earth. Previously known as Fairy Penguins these seabirds are officially Little Penguins Eudyptula minor. These birds could once fly but according to fossil records 65 million years ago their wing bones fused, and evolved into flippers. Now they can't fly, but are tremendous swimmers and divers and use their flippers like small propellers. On land it's quite a different story with the penguins only able to waddle about upright on short but strong hind legs.
Little Penguins are metallic bluish grey with a silvery white stomach, chest and throat. As adults they weigh only one-and-a-half kilograms and grow only 33cm high, with males slightly larger than the females. They are great communicators and vocalisers, from just a small bark when they are at sea, to their snorting yelps when disturbed and a range of other sounds in-between.
Where you can observe penguins
Montague Island (Baranguba) is home to the third largest colony of Little Penguins in Australia. In late spring and summer at dusk you can watch the Montague Island penguins as they body surf back into the rocky shore after a day out in the ocean, finding food for both themselves and their young. The warm, nutrient rich East Australian Current which runs just past Montague Island is a bountiful feeding ground, bringing with it lots of favourite penguin food such as small baitfish and squid.
With the lights of Narooma twinkling in the distance Montague Island's specially lit viewing platform makes penguin watching extremely enjoyable. Once the Little Penguins are safely ashore they then have to waddle up the hill and back to their nesting boxes and burrows which are scattered all over the island. Coined the 'Penguin Parade', watching these plucky little birds in this setting is hugely entertaining, and wonderfully enriching.
Between September and December there can be up to 8000 breeding pairs scattered around the island, with up to 100 emerging from the ocean each night just below the viewing platform. From January visible numbers start to drop as the birds remain in their burrows to moult, mate and nest during the months from February to June. During peak season special penguin-watching island tours are available, while charter boats venture out to Montague Island on a regular basis all year round. Narooma Visitors Centre has details of which charter boats and tours are operating and can help you plan your trip; phone 1800 240 003 or visit our Montague Island page. There are some common sense rules to follow which ensure any impact on the penguins is minimal and not harmful, which you will be made aware of.
Since 2004 visitors to Montague Island have played a significant role in restoring the seabird habitat on the island. Under the direction of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, and Charles Sturt University staff and students, over 14.5 hectares of introduced Kikuyu Grass, which traps baby penguins and covers their burrows, has been removed. In its place over 60,000 native seedlings have been planted. As a species Little Penguins are not endangered and in NSW are protected under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974; however there are a number of individual populations that are threatened. Thanks to the dedication of agencies and institutions such as the NPWS and Charles Sturt University and with the help of the public the Little Penguins on Montague Island are no longer threatened.
Below: Little Penguins nest on Montague Island