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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State Library of Victoria

The winter sunshine was beautiful in Marvellous Melbourne yesterday. I was in the CBD, among the bustling weekend throng, with the bluest of blue skies above. I voluntarily removed myself from the lovely outdoors and headed indoors, to one of my favourite city sights – the State Library of Victoria.

Established in 1854 as the Melbourne Public Library, it is Australia’s oldest library, (and if you have faith in the Gospel According to Wikipedia, it was one of the first free libraries in the world).

I visit this grand old dame occasionally. I love that it’s a quiet haven in the middle of a noisy city. More than this, I love it because 1. It houses soooooo many books – over two million of them – along with thousands of other publications, and 2. It boasts an impressive Ned Kelly collection, and 3. The Dome.

Infamous Victorian bushranger Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly holds a fascination for many people, almost 140 years after his capture and subsequent execution. I am a Ned enthusiast – and sympathiser, to a large extent – and relish any opportunity to view items of Kelly Gang significance. While many Kelly articles rightfully remain in central Victoria (the scenes of his various misdemeanours), the Library has curated a magnificent collection of Gang items, featured in a permanent exhibition on Level 5.

A set of authentic Kelly ‘armour’ is a drawcard, along with pages from the ‘Jerilderie Letter’, dictated to Gang member Joe Byrne by Ned, and a detailed account of his confessed crimes, in addition to accusations of police corruption. Ned Kelly’s death mask is also displayed. (Death masks were fleeting in popularity, produced to assist in the study of phrenology).

The Kelly items are part of The Changing Face of Victoria exhibition, a huge collection of photographs and souvenirs of the identities and events that have shaped the state. It’s well worth a look. Book lovers would also appreciate the exhibition on Level 4, The World of Book. It covers (ha!) the history of manuscript content, design and production, with articles dating from 2050 BC. You can keep your fancy Kindles. This stuff is awesome. (The World of Book is on display until 31st Dec.)

The Dome Reading Room is the architectual highlight of the building, and a must-see if in Melbourne. Take the lift up to Level 6 for a great vantage point.

There are other Reading Rooms within the Library, some with specific interest areas, including art, family history, newspapers, even chess. One room is named after colonial judge Sir Redmond Barry. He is also honoured with a bust, and a statue at the front of the Library entrance. Coincidentally, Barry was the judge who sentenced Ned Kelly to death by hanging in 1880. Am I the only one who finds that a bit strange? That the two can co-exist ‘in memoriam’ within the same grounds? Such is Melbourne.