Thursday, 23 February 2012

P-P-Penguin Fiasco

If you have a cool $400 spare you can sit in a fish tank with
a shark...
Leaving England in a foot of snow for the sunny climes of Melbourne Australia, I walked around the city centre on my first two days, kicking my heels and with a certain smugness as the bitter chill engulfing Europe went from "worse to bad". Melbourne is a city of true culture, unlike some of the amateur efforts around the UK at present, with back street coffee shops selling the highest calibre of conflict coffee available and a range of gluten free options I've not seen since Berlin.

There is so much to do. The MCG, Rod Laver Stadium, Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Moonlight Cinema, the aquarium..... The aquarium.

Aquariums for me are like the zoo. An abomination. A place where animals are herded for our entertainment for no need. Anyone who has seen a BBC production such as Blue Planet, Frozen Planet, Life or Planet Earth will I am sure be disappointed at seeing a wolf pack or penguin colony stuck in a pen, with nothing but the smell of freedom on their horizon. So it was with the aquarium this time, the first time I have been to one since a school visit in Southend back in the late '90s. As you approach, the signs describe how vast their marina is, in this case some two million litres.

Two million litres does not go far.

When entering through the ticket office you are greeted by everyone's favourite, the penguin. Maybe 40 penguins, 3 different species, in a 10x3 metre pen with a pool a few thousand litres in total for them to swim in. Admittedly there was some ice for them to stand on, which is a bonus compared to my local zoo back home, but ultimately T.I.A, this is Australia. What are penguins doing in Australia?

Due south, 9+1 minutes that way.
Some of them looked truly depressed. One poor little guy was stood staring at a wall illustration of Antarctica. The information provided informed you how far away these creatures are from home.

You do not have to be a Doctor Dolittle to work out he was not amused.

As we walked around their prison my partner made the mistake of putting her hand too close to the glass. A penguin came over and tried biting at it, she was holding a leaflet. When she put her hand against the glass without one the penguin was not interested, if she tried again with a leaflet the penguin would again try to bite at the glass. A sad indication of the learned behaviour of this beautiful animal. Pavlov's dogs would be proud.

We moved away somewhat disgusted at this learned behaviour and it appeared to some of those around us that this had become a game. Numerous tourists went up to the glass and took it in turns to tease the penguin with benign papers. Their game was however cut short for a far worse show. Feeding time.

Some of the penguins came marching down eager for a big feed as the keepers came out with buckets of mercury filled dead fish. A few however were not interested, not one bit. The keepers embarked on a round of force feeding on some of the less interested penguins, namely the few wistfully staring at the image of the Antarctic, who tossed and turned their heads trying to avoid fish after fish.  I overheard one eager viewer explain to her child that the penguins were being fed... again.
The brochure advises two Earth hours for the full experience so was it possible they were being fed again just to amuse our younglins? Either way, the penguins were not interested and it seemed as though the most depressed one took a fish just in the hope that his oppressor would go away.
Force fed

The aquarium carried on in a similar vein throughout, with sedated sharks in fish bowls floating around in circles. The highlight of the experience happened to be an ice core in the arctic show room with markings on it depicting evidence of nuclear testing in it from the 1960's onwards, but that is another story.

Once we left the the aquarium a conflict coffee was in order to settle the nerves. There was of course an alterior motive for heading to the aquariums I have vowed to boycott, especially since watching The Cove. I had been previously been made aware of a spectacular penguin viewing experience in the wild on the coast of Philip Island in Victoria, a drive of 90 earth minutes from the aquarium.

Why would you keep penguins in a pen when you can have penguins in the wild everyday for free...?

Only it was not free.

My guide for the day was a woman who had been in the past, in the last 10 years. She told me wonderful stories of how the penguins stream onto the beach from the sea in their hundreds to shed feathers etc and how they would waddle right past you. I charged the camera, filled the 4x4 up and headed off chasing the sunset towards the coast.
On our arrival we noticed a sign on the way up to the building, some worrying signs were already afoot as my guide informed me the car parks were all new and the huge building we were about to enter was new too. I am pretty sure you could still smell the paint thinners.
A large sign was crowded by a group of people, one of them turned and shouted to her family that there were to be no pictures taken once the other side of the building. I stopped in my tracks, kitted up like a member of the film crew from BBC Life I suddenly felt the con was on.

As the mist started to descend I made comment to the people huddling around the sign like king penguins that the only pictures they would be getting tonight, were government approved pictures. As with all things in life today some CEO somewhere had seen a chance to make a quick dollar and has taken something that used to be free and accessible to all and slapped a monetary ball and chain around it.
Huge banners explain the pricing $22 for general admission, $42 for penguin plus. Penguin plus what? They are coming out of the sea, onto a beach and having a waddle, what else were these penguins going to do? Between the ban on pictures and the penguin plus I elected to go with the cattle and sit in general admission.

The saying used to be 'please exit through the gift shop' in the la la land of the penguin barons though it is 'please enter and exit through the gift shop'. Scandalous, $4.50 for a tiny coffee, $5 for an mp4 player to give you a running commentary and more merchandise and souvenirs than I have seen. In fact Bernie Ecclestone would have been proud of the almost grand-prix weekend nature of the operation. We exited the back of the premises and watched as penguin plus were ferried on golf cart up the hill and away from the rest of us.

The masses await their show. Note the floodlights
When we got to the steps we sat down and some actor, sorry ranger, came out with a microphone on a hugely lit area and gave us some talk about how the penguins hated noise and were waiting for the sky to get dark so they could safely traverse the beach...and how they hate cameras. No photos, filming, phones etc etc. Media blackout. Everyone was gutted but it is OK, you can buy photos from the gift shop.
As if the clown in the brown was not clear enough, the voice from above echoed the same tune over an even bigger P.A system. They also warned of the dangers of being near wild animals as they "can and will bite". It had been a few years since my guides previous visit but I was assured the few times they had been the penguins would just waddle right past you and not even give you a moments notice.

After a few minutes a penguin came out of the sea, the excitement of the people was palpable, he gave them a show by playing around and then disappeared up into the dunes. A few more minutes passed and a couple more. Not exactly the hundreds I had been imagining.
In all the biggest group I counted was of about 13, I think we saw 30, maybe 40 penguins in total. Between the noise being made by the clowns in brown and the huge floodlights illuminating the beach I am not sure whether I would have climbed out of the sea either. My guide was bitterly disappointed as previously they had seen hundreds of penguins streaming across the beach.

We waited until the very last knocking, an hour sat on a concrete step in the bitter sea wind for 30ish penguins was not how I expected my week to end. Eventually one of the clowns in brown asked us to leave. Before doing so however I was sure I heard him say to another couple, that had waited as long as us, that the penguins mostly head round to penguin plus...the red mist began to descend again. So as he approached me I asked him what penguin plus was about, he just tried to fob me off by saying it was a smaller, more intimate area. When pushed as to whether or not this is where the majority of the penguins really come to the beach he sensed my bitterness and said "erm...sometimes, it depends" and then tried to diffuse me by urging me to head to the walkway where I would be sure to some more.

He was not wrong.

There were hundreds of penguins, groups of a bakers dozen or more, running around, laying down and clowning around. This only served though to compound the disappointment of the experience as a whole. My guide said it was very sad to see the commercialisation of these creatures in the few years since their last visit. The whole experience was a let down. The penguins returning to Australia is one of natures great sights but the chase for a few dollars more has turned one of natures spectacular free events into a little goldmine and with it the loss of the little bit of magic that went with it.


  1. I am sorry to hear that you were so misled regarding the penguin experience on Phillip Island. I would like to clarify a few things though. The visitor centre has been established for quite a long time and has had an entry fee for as long as I can recall. The establishment of Penguin Plus is however a more recent addition, which I have heard is the place to be to see more prolific numbers clambouring up the beach. The situation in regard to it now being controlled came about when numerous penguins were slaughtered by uncaring individuals and roaming dogs. It was decided by the powers that be to put a protection order in place and have rangers there to monitor the area. The gift shop is another and very seperate issue. I agree it is over the top and overpriced. The photography ban came about because the penguins couldn't deal with the high volume of cameras flashing. Again I am sad to hear your visit was so marred.

  2. Hello and thank you for reading and responding to my experiences with the penguins. In today's society I can quite understand the need for rangers to assist in the protection of these wonderful creatures but as you confirm, the commercialisation of it all is extreme. Not only do they divide you with first class travel, now you have first class penguin viewing!

  3. Sorry technical difficulties overseas! Once again thank you for your comments and observations on the situation, I am assuming that you live in the area? NNI

  4. Hello.
    I used to live about half an hour from Phillip Island, but when I had guests staying with me, occassionally would go to the penguin parades. The coastline along Westernport Bay is phenomenal and quite breath taking.
    I do hope that should you return to the area in the future, you get the opportunity to experience the area in a more positive light.