Talking to visitors, you’d think the establishment of a penguin colony in one of inner Melbourne’s more popular waterfronts was a new and novel thing. But the curving pile of the St Kilda Pier breakwater has been host to the little penguin (Eudyptula minor) since at least 1974, when the first permanent breeding pairs were documented. Anecdotes place them on site even earlier, with fishermen sighting penguins stopping on the rocks only two years after the breakwater’s construction for the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. It’s well known amongst ecologists that the little penguins of Victoria’s south coast and Phillip Island enjoy the high food availability and sheltered waters of Port Phillip Bay; the only surprise in some having established a colony was how quickly they did it.
From just two pioneering nesting sites the colony now has over 1000 birds, although there could be as many as 1400. For tourists and locals alike, it’s an excellent chance to see a large population of a species adapting to the urban environment. While conservationists more often see negative effects from dense human infrastructure – such as changing daily rhythms caused by light pollution or behaviour shifting to accommodate the noise and rush of cities – some species persist, making use of their surroundings and benefiting from the changes humans have made. The little penguins of St Kilda have been found to spend a good deal of their foraging time in the shipping channels of the bay, using the artificial formations to corral their prey. However, inhabiting an area of heavy traffic also means exposure to oil and pollutants, and concerns are still raised over access to the part of the colony not fenced off from public access.
During the long hours of summer, evenings on the breakwater promenade are punctuated by the fluoro yellow vests of Earthcare St. Kilda volunteers. Aside from checking that everyone is behaving as they should, one of the goals of the group is to raise awareness and appreciation for the little penguins. Red-filtered torches in hand, they answer questions and point out the best spots to wait for those foraging penguin parents to swim ashore.
Inner-city residents around the world have been found to feel separated from their country’s natural landscape, the places beyond the ring roads. It’s a feeling among the St Kilda volunteers that, by helping people to see that there is a more appropriate way to appreciate the animals cohabiting our urban spaces, this perceived separation between the human and the wild can be closed a little further. By fostering that fascination, we can help move toward a more understanding society and a more considered discussion on conserving our green spaces.
Of course, this fascination with our more charismatic cohabitants doesn’t always have the best results. During the early and mid-20th century, little penguin rookeries on the Summerland Peninsula of Phillip Island were facing pressure from increased visitors and new housing developments. Tourism advertisements from the period promote the evening penguin march as a must-see attraction, and photographs show that avoiding disruption was a low priority. Already at risk from foxes and dogs, the stress and habitat disturbance from the human presence led to the state government partitioning the little penguins in dedicated reserves.
Even after the creation and subsequent expansion of the beachfront reserves, habitat fragmentation from the housing developments was still found to be too disruptive. In the 1980s, a land buyback program began with the aim of removing all permanent residences and infrastructure, returning the whole peninsula to as pristine a condition as possible. In this instance, the separation of human and wild spaces was necessary.
So, what does this mean for colonies like the St Kilda penguins? An increasing human population and an increasing shift toward urbanization mean that cities will be growing larger in the future. Animals that fail to adjust will be edged out, and not just geographically – without their physical presence as a reminder, there’s a risk that planning departments will simply forget about them.
Animals persisting in urban spaces - such as beachside penguins, rooftop falcons, or bats in the Botanic Gardens - remind us that we still exist in and are still part of the natural world. Partial separation keeps a reservoir of the population safe; those out in the open remind us of what we could lose.
Banner image of Phillip Island Penguin Parade is courtesy of penguins.org.au
 Eades D (1975) Fairy penguins (Eudyptula minor) breeding on St Kilda Pier. Bird Observer 519:12
Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development.