A battle to save Australia’s last mainland colony of fairy penguins is being fought on the beaches of Manly in Sydney.
Where once there were probably tens of thousands of penguins around Australia’s south-eastern and southern coastlines only about 60 penguins survive in a few coves at the entrance to Sydney Harbour.
I took a time-out from a family reunion in Sydney recently to visit the threatened colony, and draw comparisons with the similar, but less bloody, struggle to maintain a thriving penguin colony in the Derwent.
The penguins of Manly are guarded in and out of the breeding season by a band of loyal “penguin protectors” who have in the past suffered insults and assaults during their patrols at night.
Their mission is to ensure that the penguins have a safe and secure future in Sydney Harbour and so far they have been partly successful, maintaining a stable breeding population which it is hoped will eventually colonise other beaches of the vast expanse of the beautiful harbour.
The penguins, however, have finally been driven out of the Manly Cover itself, housing the jetty for the ferry to Circular Quay in Sydney’s central business district but on my recent visit I was told that there were thriving colonies at nearby Little Many and Spring Coves.
The plight of the penguins hit the headlines a couple of years back when a 71-year-old volunteer was assaulted by a group of revellers who had come ashore from a luxury yacht. The dog they brought with them proved a threat to the penguins and when the volunteer tried to intervene she was attacked.
A man subsequently pleaded guilty to common assault and was fined $1500 by a Manly magistrate but at the same time two volunteers gave up the penguin patrol, saying it was becoming too dangerous to continue.
The moves to protect the penguins have in the past met with opposition from commercial fishermen, who have said that limiting their night-time activities during the penguin breeding season would cost them several thousand dollars.
Conservationists, however, countered by saying that a thriving penguin colony could become a tourists asset for the harbour, generating $3,5million per year in revenue.
The penguins of Sydney Harbour have suffered the same fate in the other places where they come into conflict with man’s world.
An official at the local tourist office said that until a couple years ago it was common at night to see penguins in the main Manly Cove. He said you could hear penguins calling from under the ferry jetty but they had not been seen there recently.
The Sydney situation is mirrored by that existing in the Derwent Estuary where little penguins have maintained a foothold against the odds.
The Derwent Estuary Program has largely identified penguin breeding and feeding areas and conducted a census of penguin numbers so conservation measures can be put in place. These have included fencing penguin areas and providing artificial breeding burrows.
In the Derwent Estuary dogs remain a serious problem, along with general disturbance. Being told about a penguin colony not too far from the city centre – the location of Derwent colonies are largely kept a secret because of disturbance – I was staggered a few weeks later to learn that dogs had killed some of the breeding birds, despite signs at the beach in question alerting users to their presence.
The first census of penguins 10 years ago revealed there were about 120 breeding pairs around the Derwent foreshore, and in subsequent years this reached 177 pairs across 13 active sites.
Numbers fluctuate and in recent years there has been a dip, possibly due to a lack of food. Reasons for the reduction in little penguin breeding are being investigated.
Tasmania remains the stronghold of the little penguin, although it is the Penguin Parade at Phillip Island in Victoria that tends to get all the tourist publicity in Australia, along with a few other island colonies off the mainland. There are penguin viewing spectacles around the Tasmanian coast, however, and these are well worth a visit during the penguin breeding season in the summer. A popular one is at Diamond Island, Bicheno, but my favourite spot remains the spit linking North and South Bruny Island where penguins can be viewed from an observation platform coming ashore from Storm Bay.