Managing Penguins and People on Phillip Island

 Hi tech night goggles are a feature of the Ultimate Adventure Tour. Image courtesy of Phillip Island Nature Parks.

Hi tech night goggles are a feature of the Ultimate Adventure Tour. Image courtesy of Phillip Island Nature Parks.

As Shannon O’Brien puts away the night goggles, torches and headsets which his group has put to great use for the previous few hours, he declared the evening a great success.It’s 10.30pm and Shannon and his group of 10 have just returned from watching over 100 penguins come ashore on one of Phillip Island’s secluded beaches.
Indeed the group stayed on the beach longer than normal as there were so many penguins. Finding a time to leave without disturbing them proved challenging.
Shannon is one of 36 Phillip Island Nature Parks’ parade rangers who each night look after the thousands of visitors who flock to Phillip Island to see its little penguins. During peak periods up to 42 rangers can be employed.
Their work is varied. They can be rostered on to look after up to 3000 people visiting in the general viewing area, or can take one of the more intimate five specialty tours on offer.
They also provide general help and answer questions in the Visitor Information Centre.
Shannon admits taking his tour on this night, the Ultimate Adventure Tour, is his favourite assignment.
“It’s a very intimate group and one of the reasons I love this job is it gives me the chance to meet people from all over the world,” he explains.
“The feeling of serenity I get sitting on the beach watching the sunset and the penguins come ashore is something I never tire of. I also love being outdoors.
“And you are always experiencing something new. The other night I am sure I saw a Fjordland penguin, a species I have never seen here before.”

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Watching penguins from a private beach is a highlight of the Ultimate Adventure Tour. Image courtesy of Phillip Island Nature Parks

Although Shannon has worked as a ranger for nearly five years he says no two nights are ever the same. And he’s still learning thanks to the many questions asked by the public, another reason why he loves his job.
“I love imparting knowledge,” says Shannon.
Shannon fits all the requirements of a successful parade ranger – good people skills, a love of the environment and wildlife and the ability to communicate. No previous experience in the area is required as on the job training is provided by Phillip Island Nature Parks.
While variety is one of the joys of his jobs there are some comments Shannon always expects to hear and tonight is no exception.
“There’s always someone who is surprised the penguins are so small,” he says with a laugh.
“Most people also don’t realise just how many penguins there are.”
For the Ultimate Tour Shannon arrives at the park around 6.30 and checks conditions and the equipment to be used for the tour.
He meets the group, which tonight includes Australian, English and German visitors, at 8pm for a briefing about what to expect and the penguins they’ll see. Then it’s time for a short drive to the secluded beach where the group waits for the penguins to come onto the beach from their day’s fishing. Hi tech night goggles provide the light to see the penguins however experience tells Shannon someone will forget to take the lens cap off – so there’s a quick lesson on their use!

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Penguins on the path are one of the `hazards’ of walking back on the Ultimate Adventure Tour. Image courtesy Phillip Island Nature Parks.

No such lessons are needed on how to use the torches which are used on the walk back to the visitor centre. However given the number of penguins on the path and their chicks there is a gentle reminder about not shining lights into the penguin eyes.
This walk often provides Shannon with one of the hardest parts of his jobs – ignoring the cries of hungry chicks who may well die of starvation if their parents don’t return from the ocean.
“We don’t interfere with nature so when I see these chicks I really hope their parents will eventually turn up, but seeing them day after day getting thinner is very hard.”Tonight it doesn’t seem so much of a problem as the group passes many `parents’ being hassled by their hungry chicks. Sometimes, Shannon explains, the chicks are so annoying the parents will just wander off for some quiet time alone.
Back in the briefing room last minute questions are answered, the group is farewelled and Shannon puts away the equipment and reflects on the success of the evening.
Then, like all visitors, he checks under his car in the car park to ensure there are no penguins hiding and heads off to his Phillip Island home.
*This story first appeared in Melbourne Where March 2011 edition. While Shannon has since left according to Phillip Island Nature Parks all guides are equally informative and enthusiastic.

For more stories on Phillip Island see Viewing Penguins Underground at Phillip Island,  Wildlife Always A Delight on Phillip Island, A Watery Adventure at Phillip Island , Silverwater Resort  and Ranada Resort Phillip Island. Visit travelswithjb/victoria for more reviews and stories about Victoria.

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