A Tasmanian wildlife experience offers an entertaining search for penguins in the wild on Bonnet Island, which is a boat trip from Strahan.
We sneak along the path in single file, tiptoeing behind our guide who stops suddenly, turns and whispers: “There are two penguins on the path in front of us.”
I squint into the darkness.
She shines her red-filtered spotlight on the two little penguins, bathing them in a dim glow.
Camera flashes or strong lights are not allowed.
I point my camera towards the penguins. But before I can take the photo, the penguins leap beneath a bushy shrub and their steel-blue feathers disappear into a burrow in the ground.
There are a number of places to see little penguins in Tasmania but none like Bonnet Island near Strahan.
Crouching and peering beneath bushes is not at all what I had imagined I’d be doing on this night penguin tour at the mouth of Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s west coast.
The little penguin is the only type of penguin that breeds in Australia. Their breeding ground stretches from Fremantle in Western Australia to the east coast (as far north as Sydney).
In most places, little penguins like to come ashore in the safety of large numbers.
But on Bonnet Island, the penguins sneak home under the cover of night, rocks and dense low-lying shrubs.
Little penguins are known as fairy penguins or blue penguins. These penguins are the smallest penguins in the world.
They only grow up to 40cm and weigh around 1 kg. That’s small and light when you consider the world’s largest penguin, the emperor penguin, is more than 110cm high and can weigh up to 30 kg.
The Bonnet Island Experience begins with a boat ride from Strahan. We arrive just before dusk. Only 10 guests are allowed on the island each time to minimise the environmental impact on the island and its wildlife.
Our guides set up cheese platters and serve wine at a lookout at the base of the island’s lighthouse while waiting for the penguins to come ashore. As we wait for darkness to unfold, our guide keeps us entertained with stories about the lighthouse keepers who braved the harsh conditions on the tiny island.
The narrow, 120-metre entrance to the enormous Macquarie Harbour (about six times the size of Sydney Harbour) was discovered in 1815. Timber cutters moved in. But the narrow entrance and its sandbar proved to be a significant navigation hazard.
A signal station was built near Cape Sorellin 1822 and manned by convicts from the nearby Sarah Island penal settlement. They called the entrance to the harbour Hells Gate, after the miserable conditions at Sarah Island.
In 1907, the steamship SS Kawatiri was forced onto a sandbank as the captain tried to steer it into the safety of Macquarie Harbour in wild weather.
According to Clark, some of the passengers, including women and children, drowned while trying to abandon the ship in lifeboats.
Among the dead were the wife and sons of Bonnet Island’s assistant lighthouse keeper R. J. Hooper. A shiver runs down my spine when learn that we are standing on the spot where the Hooper family’s house once stood.
Ghosts in the dark
The penguins sound like ghosts in the dark. They clamber out of the water and from the timber balconies on the island, we watch them waddle ashore.
With head torches strapped to our heads, we peer under the bushes.
A penguin appears from behind the bushes. A group of three shuffles across the path in front of us, stopping for a few seconds before diving behind a bush. A few curious penguins stop for a longer look at the strange creatures with lights on their heads.
The night is much like a penguin treasure hunt in the dark. And it’s a barrel of fun for all the family. Although I suspect that the penguins, from their hiding places, are getting quite an eyeful of us.
Before heading back to Strahan, the boat does a lap around the island. We shine our spotlights on the island’s low-lying rocky outcrops for final glimpses of the cute little penguins.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Tourism Tasmania
Bonnet Island Experience (Strahan Activities Centre, The Esplanade, Strahan, tel: 6471 4200)
Strahan Village overlooks Macquarie Harbour and the wharf. It has a range of accommodation including heritage-style waterfront cottages, terraced units and hilltop suites.
While in Strahan:
1. See the west coast from the sky with Strahan Seaplanes & Helicopters.
2. Take a nostalgic trip on the West Coast Wilderness Railway to Queenstown.
3. The Piners and Miners tour in a Land Rover Defender Hi-Rail, a four-wheel drive converted into a rail car, is an exciting wilderness adventure.