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Become a Penguin Guide at St Kilda Pier

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by Debbie Lustig (subscribe)
My work has been published in The Age, The Herald-Sun, The Australian, The Big Issue, Australian Birdlife, The Bark (USA), Eureka Street, Overland and The Australian Jewish News.
They're blue, white and they eat fish St Kilda's penguins
With their cute waddle and fascinating lifecycle, Little Penguins are Australia's most-watched birds. Their nightly return to burrows at Phillip Island in Victoria's south is viewed by a staggering half a million people annually.

Closer to Melbourne's CBD - in fact, around six kilometres, as the penguin swims - St Kilda's breakwater has been quietly hosting a colony of Little Penguins since 1956. The birds arrived because the breakwater offered them a calm, safe haven inside Port Phillip Bay.

Photo digitally enhanced

In 1974, the first breeding was observed and from1986, a dedicated band of volunteers has monitored the colony's health, catching, weighing and microchipping chicks every fortnight, year-round.

For years, the colony was little known. Around 2006, this changed forever when a guidebook company mentioned the birds. Now, the Little Penguins are at risk from being loved to death by hordes of keen tourists and observers, who stroll down the pier on warm summer nights, eager for a glimpse, if not a photograph or two.

Hence, the penguin guide program. Set up in 2008 by St Kilda Earthcare, the group that monitors the birds trains volunteers in penguin facts and figures and safety around the penguins. Only red light torches are used and flash photography is not allowed. Bright, white light stresses the penguins whilst the birds are adapted to green/blue light under the sea, so red filters are used to cover torches.

Guides are given a short training course, a safety vest and torch, and an extensive folder of information to draw on when talking to visitors. You must commit to one shift a fortnight.

The conservation message can sometimes come too late, as when a penguin is found strangled by fishing line or a plastic bag found lining a burrow. Guides gently emphasise that litter on suburban streets ends up right in our bay, on our much-loved penguins' doorstep.

In this quiet, island-like bluestone breakwater, the many chinks and gaps give wonderful protection to a breeding pair of penguins. So much so, their breeding success rate exceeds that of the Phillip Island colony.

There are fewer predators at St Kilda, too, with negligible sharks, seals, foxes and feral cats. But life is still hazardous for a penguin, with problems of oil spills, propeller entanglements, plastics and fishing line. These are all human creations, and all preventable.

People interested in applying to be a penguin guide should write to Earthcare St Kilda or email Susie Parker.

For insurance purposes, you'll need to join Earthcare St Kilda.
Photo taken with red torch light

The guiding season starts at the beginning of October. Fuzzy little furball chicks begin appearing outside their burrows and mum or dad penguins are mobbed as they arrive back from the sea with food in their gullets.

The youngsters grow feathers and in eight weeks, transform into the steel blue-and-white of their waterproof, adult plumage. They look funniest when, half-grown, they're blue and white with mantles of baby, brown fluff.

But these aren't really cute and cuddly birds. They're wild animals with sharp beaks that can cut a hole in your skin you'll never forget - as some have learnt to their cost.

With up to 1100 penguins - about 10% of which are accessible to the public - the boardwalk can get a little crowded in high summer. Guides help to regulate numbers, ensuring the penguins don't suffer and people aren't in moshpit proximity.

Visitors from all over the world come to see the Little Penguins of St Kilda pier. Here's your chance to help teach them a bit about the lives of these adorable, urban birds, that make their homes side by side with ours.

Three-week-old Little Penguin chick

Did you know? Little Penguin Facts

Little Penguins have 10,000 feathers. That's three to four times more than birds that fly.

Little Penguins drink seawater and excrete the salt using glands near their eyes.

Little Penguins are blue-grey on their backs so that they resemble the ocean to predators in the air. From below, their white bellies make them less easily seen by sharks and seals looking up.

Little Penguins are known as Little Blue Penguins or Blue Penguins in New Zealand; they're the same species.

Little Penguins are the smallest of the world's 17 species of penguin. They are found only in southern Australia and New Zealand.
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Why? Because the penguins need guides
When: Training 30/9/12 at 2 pm.
Guides work once a fortnight on the night of their choosing.
The season runs between 7/10/12 and 7/4/13
Phone: 0419896011
Where: Training at Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron
Cost: free
Your Comment
Thanks Marguerite. Training is this Sunday.
by Debbie Lustig (score: 2|527) 2549 days ago
Ever since I first heard about the little penguins, I wanted to do something to help them! Thanks for this great, informative article!

by Marguerite Bravay (score: 1|22) 2550 days ago
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