Flippin’ awesome

Penguins fascinate me. Flightless, skilled swimmers, they are an oddity of the animal kingdom. Fish out of water, or rather, birds out of sky. I admire their resilience, adaptability and noble sense of duty in the face of adversity. Out there in nature, survival is not assured for the entire black and white army – it is only for the fittest and luckiest of its soldiers. These guys live in harsh environments and face prey at sea as well as on land. I can’t bring myself to watch wildlife documentaries, it’s too much reality. Ignorance is bliss – as is a leisurely hour observing and appreciating these beautiful creatures at Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium.

I like to wander through Melbourne’s world-class aquarium every year or so. Sea Life is home to an impressive array of marine life, with the King and Gentoo penguins the star attractions. There are beautiful displays of jellyfish, seahorses, fish and coral, rockpools offering touchy-feely experiences, and the somewhat scarier resident sharks, crocodiles and stingrays safely out of reach. (You can opt to get up close and personal, if that’s your thing).

There are fewer than 20 known species of penguins in the world today. All bar one species is found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere. My favourite is the Little Blue, formerly called the Fairy Penguin, which live in colonies on the coastlines of New Zealand and southeast Australia. I’m a big fan of the Antarctic long-tailed Gentoo as well. These guys have huge personalities and are fun to watch. (Not unusual for me to kill 2hrs+ viewing them at Sea Life, much to the supposed amusement of staff… promise I’m not casing the joint! Nothing suss here. No feathered, flippered souvenirs in my backpack).

At this time of the year you can watch the engrossing ‘nest’ building ritual in action. The Gentoo penguins construct mounds of small rocks or pebbles, which will serve as nests for the upcoming egg laying. Courtship begins with the offering of a single rock. (Ladies, who doesn’t love a rock?!) If it’s accepted, the couple then set about building as big a nest as possible, even if this means sneakily thieving from their negligent neighbours’ stash. One stands guard on the nest while the other goes pebble-hunting. The stealing back and forth is relentless. These are smooth criminals, committing instinctive crimes of passion.

The King penguin is a stunning bird, proud and regal, with highlights of gold adorning his elegant tuxedo. By contrast, their chicks are fluff balls, dressed in thick brown fur coats. It’s not fur of course, just lots and lots of tiny feathers. It’s so odd to see parent and young side by side, they appear to be completely different breeds. As the chick matures it will moult, with the vanishing fluff revealing the suave Bond-like ensemble underneath.

Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium is open every day of the year, for your penguin-viewing pleasure. Go! And enjoy. 🙂

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