The Granite Island penguin tour is a must when you visit Victor Harbor. The Little Penguins, and hearing about the efforts to protect them, will warm your heart.
Granite Island is a little over an hour from Adelaide on South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula. A 650 metre long causeway joins the island to the seaside town of Victor Harbor. Allow 20 minutes to walk across the causeway.
The meeting point for the tour is about halfway between the causeway and the Island Café. The guides are easy to spot in their high visibility tops with the words ‘Penguin Guide’ on the back.
There were around 30 people in our group which felt like a bit of a crowd. But, after the introductions, we split into two groups. The guides did a great job moving the groups around to give everyone a chance to see the penguins.
Before setting off, we hear about the recent history of the fairy penguins on Granite Island. Sadly, it’s not a great story. In recent years, penguin numbers have gone from around 2000 birds to less than 50. There are between 30 and 40 penguins on the island now.
While we won’t be seeing 2000 penguins back on the Island any time soon, the current population is stable. Numbers have been lower but are now increasing. There are also quite a few chicks on the island which is a hopeful sign for the future.
Red lights – a penguin’s delight
This experience is different to the penguin parade you see on Phillip Island in Victoria. There are no grandstands and you won’t see thousands of little penguins waddling up the beach. On Granite Island, penguin spotting is more like a game of hide and seek.
From the meeting point our group makes its way along the sea wall to the café. The first thing we learn about penguin spotting is that you use a red light to do it.
Our guide, Gail, tells us penguins have sensitive eyes. If the light from a regular torch hits their eyes it will blind them for hours. Hence the red look to our pictures and video.
We also learn that that there are two penguin neighbourhoods on the island. There is one near where the tour started, and another closer to the café. Our first stop is at a nesting site near the café. As we walk along a boardwalk, we’re asked to be quiet and move slowly.
Our group goes into stealth mode and Gail shines her light into the bushes. There, in the red beam are two fluffy penguin chicks. It’s impossible to be silent. Hushed oohs and ahs come from our group. The chicks are adorable. They are out of their nest waiting for one of their parents to return with food.
The chicks are around between October and February and they are super cute. Gail, however, warns us not to get too gushy over the them. They can behave quite aggressively towards one another and their parent at mealtime.
We hear that the adults will take their time getting back to the nest to avoid the rough and tumble of feeding time. As we try to understand how something so cute can be so horrible, a third chick appears.
It scampers under the boardwalk and barrels into the two chicks we’re watching. We’re told he is from another nest and comes over for a play. The new play mate is a bit older and has most of its swimming feathers.
Returning to shore
From here we move along to the breakwater where some of the penguins return from sea. The Granite Island penguins return to the island as one then split off in two directions. The parents of the chicks we saw come to shore near the breakwater. The others swim around the breakwater and have their nests nearer to where we met.
After a short wait eight little penguins appear between some rocks. Even from a distance they are cute if not easy to photograph. They dash from rock to rock as they prepare for the hectic welcome that awaits them.
We watch them at the breakwater for ten or fifteen minutes. We are lucky with the weather. It’s a warm, calm summer night for our tour. At other times, this part of the island can take a battering from the waves. Dress warm and waterproof if you do the tour in colder, wetter months!
From the breakwater we make our back past various nesting sites. The guides are volunteers. Gail has been at it for 15 years. She, and the others, seem to know the location of every nest and the path the parents take back to them.
We work our way back to where we started looking to see if the parents have made it back to the nests. The chicks we saw have lost their playmate but are still waiting for their food to arrive.
Along the sea wall the red light is shone on another nest. This also has a couple of chicks in it. There is an adult there keeping its distance, either bracing itself or recovering from the ordeal of feeding its young.
Fairy Penguin at Adelaide Zoo
It’s clear that the guides are protective of the penguins. As some people not in the group come towards us, Gail’s light goes off to keep the penguin’s location secret.
On another occasion, some passers-by make the mistake of having a regular torch on. Gail might be around retirement age, but she doesn’t hesitate to confront the group.
To be fair, when they learn they might be responsible for blinding fairy penguins they are quick to apologise and can’t turn their lights off fast enough. Just as well, or I don’t know what Gail might have done to them!
Granite island penguin tour is a winner
Our night finishes near where we started, and we see a couple of moulting penguins. While this happens, they can’t swim as they lose their waterproof layer. Instead, they stand outside their nests looking bedraggled and cranky.
The tour ends around 10.30. It feels like we have glimpsed one of Granite Island’s wildlife secrets. We spotted around 15 adult penguins and five chicks. Not bad for a population of 30 plus birds.
While it is sad to see how few penguins are on Granite Island, the ones here are in good hands. Next time you are in Victor Harbor, put the penguin tour on your list of things to do. The penguins are great to see, and the guides are knowledgeable and passionate.
Granite Island, Victor Harbour, South Australia
Located right on the beachfront, overlooking Encounter Bay this Victor Harbor Beachfront Holiday Park is the perfect base for your Victor Harbor holiday. With bouncy pillows, water parks, pool, recreation room, kids holiday activities there is plenty to keep the kids occupied.
90 Minute Nature & Penguin Tour
Victor Harbor, South Australia
Experience the arrival of the Little Penguins coming home from a day on the ocean and watch them return to their burrows.
Tours start just before dusk and last 1.5 – 2hrs
Little Penguins are the ultimate power nappers. They sleep for around four minutes at a time and can do so on land standing up and in the water.
While they might appear to have black and white feathers, their dark feathers are actually very dark blue. This helps them blend in with the water and be less obvious to overhead predators.
Little Penguins are the only penguin species that breed in Australia.
On average Little Penguins dive 5 -20 metres to collect food. One penguin has been recorded diving to a depth of 72 metres!
How do you tell male and female penguins apart? Their beaks. Male Little Penguins and thicker beaks that have a noticeable hook at the end.
The Little Penguin is big on names. It is also called the Fairy Penguin because of it’s size. In New Zealand it is also called the blue of little blue penguin because of its slate blue feathers. It also has Maori name – korora.