PHILLIP ISLAND, Australia — It’s a magical sight: Just as the light begins to vanish, thousands of tiny penguins waddle out of the surf on an island in southeastern Australia, and then head up the beach and along well-worn paths toward their burrows.
The “penguin parade” has been a major attraction since the 1920s, when tourists were led by torchlight to view the nightly arrival of the birds — the world’s smallest penguin breed, with adults averaging 13 inches tall — from a day of fishing and swimming.
For much of that time, the penguins lived among the residents of a housing development, mostly modest vacation homes, in tight proximity to cars and pets, as well as ravenous foxes. The penguins’ numbers fell precipitously. But in 1985, the state government took an extraordinary step: It decided to buy every piece of property on the Summerland Peninsula and return the land to the penguins. The process was completed in 2010.
The birds are now thriving. There are about 31,000 breeding penguins on the peninsula, up from 12,000 in the 1980s. Phillip Island Nature Parks is the most popular wildlife tourist destination in the state of Victoria, drawing 740,000 visitors in 2018. And late last month, a gleaming symbol of that success opened to the public: a $58 million visitor center, a striking star-shaped building with glass walls that look onto penguin burrows.
The story of the transformation of the Summerland Peninsula from a coastal suburb into a wildlife habitat and world-class tourist spot is one of unusual government foresight. It also reflects the vital Australian tourism industry’s heavy reliance on wilderness and wildlife resources and the economic threats posed by environmental degradation.
“The case study at Phillip Island is proof that difficult short-term decisions can yield great long-term results,” said Rachel Lowry, chief conservation officer of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature-Australia. “It is an incredible example of allowing scientific modeling to motivate and inform a decision that has gone on to benefit both people and nature in the long term.”
Phillip Island, which sits in the mouth of Westernport Bay about 85 miles south of Melbourne, is home to the world’s largest colony of the species known as the little penguin. In addition to the southern coastline of Australia, the birds also breed and nest in New Zealand.
In the 1930s, the owners of the land on the peninsula gave about 10 acres to the state of Victoria for the protection of the little penguins, and by the 1950s viewing stands and fences had been built on Summerland Beach — the main observation point for the parade — to control human access and viewing. A visitor center was built in the 1960s.
For many residents of Victoria, a visit to the penguin parade was — and still is — a childhood rite of passage, the destination for school trips and family outings.
But the peninsula, with its breathtaking views of the ocean, has also been an attractive location for developers. On the penguins’ breeding ground, 190 structures — mainly homes — were built as part of Summerland Estate, with plans for hundreds more.
That, along with the predatory behavior of foxes (now eradicated) that had been introduced by European settlers, led to a sharp decrease in the island’s population of little penguins. At one time there were 10 colonies on Phillip Island; today there is only one.
By the early 1980s, scientists studying the colony were worried about the prospect of total local extinction.
“The colony was being eroded at an alarmingly rapid rate,” said Peter Dann, research manager at Phillip Island Nature Park. Dann has worked for the park since the early 1980s and was one of the authors of a study that led to the Summerland property buyback.
When Dann describes the 1985 decision to remove or destroy the structures in Summerland Estate, he still seems shocked it happened. It is thought to be the only instance in the world in which an entire community has been purchased by a government for the sake of environmental and wildlife protection.
Dann gives much of the credit to Joan Kirner, who was the minister for conservation at the time and went on to become Victoria’s premier. She died in 2015.
“She came out here; she toured the island; I explained the situation to her,” Dunn said. “She went back and convinced the government that this was the right thing to do. I think if it had been anyone else, anyone but Kirner, I never could have convinced them.”
In the years leading up to 1985, measures had been taken by the government to halt development and buy undeveloped land on the peninsula. But the idea of eradicating Summerland Estate was a bombshell for residents.
“We were horrified and deeply shocked and incredibly saddened,” a former resident, Jean Verwey, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. last year, adding that she finds it difficult to visit the site of her former family home.
The state government initially allocated about $7 million, or about $17 million in today’s money, for the effort. But because of financing issues, the buyback took a decade longer than originally planned. This gave some residents more time in their properties, but it also left them in a state of limbo. They were banned from building or upgrading in any way.
Dann, who himself was a onetime renter on the peninsula, said he understood the anguish. “I have lots of empathy — these are people who have spent countless Christmases and holidays here, who made intergenerational family memories,” he said. But his main concern and loyalty lay with the penguins, he said.
The new visitor center is on land that was previously a parking lot for the old center, in a location between the dunes, the headland and the wetlands, where penguins are unlikely to build burrows. It has a much larger capacity than the old center, with two restaurants, event spaces and meeting rooms.
This week, nine years after the last Summerland Estate home was purchased and removed by the state, a final demolition will begin: The old center and its surrounding facilities will be cleared, freeing up almost 15 acres of prime habitat — enough for around 1,400 tiny penguins.