Shallow Thoughts : : 25

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Fri, 25 Jan 2008

No Worms at the Giant Worm

Of course I had to stop. How could you drive by a roadside stand advertising the Giant Earthworms of South Gippsland and not stop?

Besides, Bill Bryson had written about it.

But the Giant Worm museum was a disappointment. They had a sign up apologizing for not having any actual live giant worms on display (it's an endangered species), so all they had was models and one yucky preserved specimen in a jar.

It still was a fun stop, though. They have a little wildlife center -- not nearly as nice as the one on Phillip Island, but they had a very tame and sweet baby wombat, and a shy but very cute baby wallaby. Plus a variety of other animals like dingos, full sized adult wombats, an assortment of kangaroos, cockatoos, pythons, etc. And ... alpacas? Not something I normally think of as a native Australian animal, but they were cute.

The worm stuff was fairly pedestrian in comparison. If you want to learn about the Giant Earthworm of South Gippsland, either read Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country or, better yet, rent the appropriate episode of Life in the Undergrowth and let David Attenborough fill you in on the details.

After leaving the worm museum, I headed over to the Mornington peninsula (I'll let Bryson tell you about that, too, since I didn't stop there) to take the car ferry across to Queenscliff.

I'd never been on a car ferry before, and was a bit shocked when I found out it would cost me $57 to cross. Yikes! I probably would have taken the long way round, had I known. But it's just as well I didn't know, because then I would have missed the dolphins -- four of them, escorting the ferry and playing in its wake. I'm sure it's nothing unusual, but it my first time ever seeing dolphins in the wild. When we landed at Queenscliff I found out that it's the place where you go if you want to pay to "swim with the dolphins", so I guess they're unusually tame there. I didn't stop to swim with them (nor was I much tempted to take a dip, on a chilly overcast day); I was on my way to Geelong to drive the Great Ocean Road.

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[ 14:18 Jan 25, 2008    More travel/melbourne08 | permalink to this entry | ]

What's hot in South Gippsland

One of the joys of travel is checking out regional newspapers to see what the locals care about. The morning after the Penguin Parade, that meant the South Gippsland Sentinel-Times.

The Sentinel-Times features regular items like a page of fishing news (some local kids caught a Mako shark) and a page of farming news (an unusually high demand for heifers). The week's editorial concerns a "former doubter" who has his picnic/camping trip disrupted by a huge black feline, three times the size of a normal house cat, skulking in the bushes near the picnic tables. The writer elects not to leave the safety of the car, and drives away. Now he no longer doubts people's stories of huge black cats (apparently an ongoing issue in South Gippsland). He still doesn't believe in UFOs, though.

But the top story in the Sentinel-Times is the new desalinization plant being built against the protests of residents. There were at least five different stories about it. But isn't desalinization a good thing, in a region which is under severe water restrictions already? Most of the articles assumed that readers already knew the issues, but finally I found the answer: the plant is far larger than needed for the region, it's feared that it will have (unspecified) environmental impact upon the local ecology and no environmental studies have been done, and, finally, the most telling fact: the plant will be owned by an Israeli firm which will own rights to the water.

Anyone remember Bolivia's water riots, when the peasants rose up against foreign companies overcharging them for their own water? Handing over local control of the water supply sounds like a bad plan. I'd be against it too. Good luck to the folk of South Gippy in their fight.

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[ 14:17 Jan 25, 2008    More travel/melbourne08 | permalink to this entry | ]

The Penguin Parade

I'll just start with the summary: the Penguin Parade is completely amazing.

Phillips Island, a couple hours' drive south of Melbourne, is home to a colony of little penguins. (That's the species name, not just a descriptive adjective, though it does describe them: they're only about a foot tall.)

Little penguins nest in burrows in the rolling dune terrain above the beach. They swim many miles out into the ocean on hunting trips, but when they've eaten their fill, they come back to their burrows on the island. They prefer to do this at dusk, to avoid diurnal predators like hawks. So every night just after sunset, the penguins who have been out hunting need to cross the beach and walk/run/waddle to their burrows.

They're so regular about this that it has become a major tourist attraction: there's a permanent viewing area where hordes of tourists can watch the penguins on their daily journey. Wooden boardwalks over the dunes. Floodlights so people can see the penguins better (the penguins don't seem to mind). Tickets are sold, and there are scads of bus tours from Melbourne. I mean, there are a lot of bus tours; you can throw your back out just hefting a stack of all the brochures from all the tour companies.

I was tempted to go the tour route. They take care of all that driving-on-the-left stuff and figuring out where to go, and the price isn't all that high when you compare it to car rental and gas and ticket prices. But ... reading about the Parade I kept seeing comments like "Stay a bit later and you'll get to see more" ... if the Parade actually turned out to be something cool, I didn't want to be shooed out early because the bus driver wanted to leave. Better to have my own transportation and a room on the island.

So there I was, sitting on a concrete step at sunset in the chill ocean wind. (The smarter folk stayed in the comfy warm visitor center until past sunset.) Silver gulls showed off their soaring skills inches above our heads, buzzing the crowd looking for dropped bits of food. Kids jostled and fiddled. (The little boy from the family in front of me on the steps wanted to play with the little foam Tux Linux penguin hanging on my backpack.)

(I imagined the penguins, swimming around there in the ocean before us, chatting with each other: "Every night, you can see thousands of humans gathered on this beach. No penguin knows why they all gather here and not at other beaches. But it's an amazing show, seeing all those humans together. You just have to walk a little way up the beach to see them.")

As the sky darkned and stars started to appear, a ranger stepped forward and told us a little about the penguins and what we'd be seeing. Then they played recorded messages in Japanese and Chinese (though I heard more European languages than Asiatic in the crowd that night). I didn't try to estimate the crowd. I heard an estimate of two thousand, but I doubt it was anywhere near that high.

We were there at a good time, the ranger told us. There were lots of chicks in the burrows, old enough that the parents were kept busy foraging. That means lots of penguins crossing the beach.

But crossing the beach is a dangerous trip for a foot-tall penguin, even if they wait until after sunset. So penguins hang out in the shallows until there are enough of them; then they all land together and make their way inland as a group.

The floodlights came on, but it was another ten minutes or so before we saw the first penguins. A group of maybe ten tiny figures stood on the rocks, obviously trying to work up the courage to proceed. They'd move a few feet, to the next rock, then stop for a while, working up the nerve for the next move.

Before long there was another, larger group assembling off to the left, and then a third group. Group one finally made it off the rocks and started heading for the dunes -- toward the special boardwalk for the people who bought the $60 "Penguin Plus" tickets. We proles in the cheap seats still had plenty to watch, though, as a fourth and fifth group began to assemble. Pretty soon there were groups of tiny penguins all over the beach making their waddling way toward the dunes.

In the pre-parade talk, the ranger had told us that a lot of the action is up in the dunes, the wooden boardwalks we'd taken on our way down from the visitors center. Watch several groups cross the beach, he said, but then go back up to the boardwalks and you'll see plenty of action up there too. Indeed: now I understood the point of the raised boardwalks, as we watched determined penguins following trails right beneath our feet. Burrows were everywhere: a lot of the burrows were just a few feet from a floodlit boardwalk filled with people.

The night filled with the warbling cries of little penguins searching for a partner, chick or parent. A reunited pair would sing a duet, caressing each other with their flippers and bills. Other times, a penguin would climb to the wrong burrow, to be driven off by the penguin already waiting there. Some penguins preferred mansions in the hills, climbing determinedly up near-vertical gully walls to reach a high burrow; others stayed down in the easier-to-reach lowland slums.

There were other animals active besides penguins. As soon as darkness fell, dark long-winged birds began flying by: short-tailed shearwaters, the ranger told me. And in the darkness of the dunes, penguins weren't the only animals moving between burrows: quite a few rabbits (two or three times the size of the penguins) were there as well.

And the penguins kept coming. An hour passed, and still the waves of ten, twelve, fifteen penguins at a time struggled their way up the dunes. Sometimes a straggler would collapse, exhausted, and just lie there in the sand until the next group came along. Sometimes a penguin would get a burst of energy and run to catch up to the group ahead of them. A second hour passed, with no letup in the supply of penguins. There must be thousands of them.

By about 11:15, the rangers started turning off the floodlights and gently nudging people up the boardwalks. They weren't pushy about it, but you could tell they wished we'd leave so they could go home. There were only a few dozen of us spectators left by then, and a kangaroo had wandered in from somewhere to watch the show. (I'd had to stop for another kangaroo on the road on the way up to the show. Very cool.)

A ranger answered a few last questions as we clustered on the concrete pad next to the visitor's center. Another ranger nudged two dawdling spectators to move to one side: "Those penguins there are waiting for you to get out of the way so they can cross." Indeed, as soon as the two gents moved aside, one penguin left the group and waddled decisively across the tarmac and into the dunes across the way.

Did I mention that the whole experience was completely amazing?

I was one of the last to leave, but I could easily have stayed for yet another hour, watching soap opera stories of partners reunited, chicks found and fed, wanderers lost and then found.

The next morning I drove out to "The Nobbies", the trail at the end of the road past the Penguin Parade. Looking with new eyes, I realized that the hill where the lookout stood, maybe 1500 feet above the water, was peppered with penguin burrows. Indeed, as I started down the trail I could see that some of the burrows were occupied.

The Penguin Parade was a magical experience. But the most amazing thing about it is that it isn't anything unusual. This happens every night. It's not the same penguins from one night to the next: they'll go hunting for several days or a week, come back to land, then stay that long in the burrow before going out again. But the thousands of penguins I saw ... there wasn't anything special about the night I was there. You can go out there any night of the year and see thousands of penguins swimming up out of the water, landing on the beach and marching past you to their burrows. Nothing special ... happens every night.

Completely amazing.

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[ 14:16 Jan 25, 2008    More travel/melbourne08 | permalink to this entry | ]

Phillip Island

I'm in Melbourne, for But I'm spending the week before the conference exploring greater Melbourne ... beginning with Phillip Island.

After a couple of days in Melbourne to recover from the flight, I checked out of my hotel and faced the scariest task of the day: schlepping across town to the rental car place carrying all my luggage, fearing that when I got there they'd take one look at my driver's license and say "Are you crazy? We don't give out cars to people who only know how to drive on the right!"

But as sensible as that would have been, in fact they gave me the keys to a Hyundai Elantra and directions out of town. I was on my way to Phillip Island.

It took me a couple of hours to get there, being very mellow and repeating "left, left, left" to myself. But in fact, it turns out to be surprisingly easy to stay on the correct side of the road, and Victoria's ubiquitous roundabouts actually make it easier, oddly enough. The only hard part is keeping from wearing out the windshield wipers, which stubbornly persist in coming on when I flip the stalk where the turn signals ought to be.

Anyway, Phillip Island. The point of going there is the island's famous Penguin Parade, a huge tourist attraction involving watching penguins come up out of the water and trek across the beach to their nests. This happens at sunset, which was still many hours away, so I decided to while away some of the time checking out the wild animal park.

The wildlife park is down a short dusty driveway. There were only a couple of cars parked there, which surprised me since Melbourne is full of brochures from at least ten different companies that run bus tours to what sounded like the same place ("See koalas! hand-feed kangaroos and emus!") It looked like the kind of place you'd expect to find one tiny corral with a couple of sad, moth-eaten animals enduring the hordes of tourists. But there I was -- might as well give it a chance.

I'm glad I did. The place is huge and has a very good selection of Australian animals, kept in large pens and apparently well cared for. I saw koalas, all right -- four of them, snoozing on branches in the afternoon sun, barely more than an arm's length away from the elevated boardwalk. I lost count of the different species of kangaroos and wallabies, some of them in large pens and some just wandering around at large, begging food from passing visitors. (A wallaby's facial fur is very soft as it snuffles your hand; its back and neck fur are coarser.)

The emus found out early on that I was an easy target. I fed the two adults and two youngsters through a fence, only discovering later that their enclosure also houses red kangaroos and you can walk in. But when I tried, the emus recognized me and came running, to surround me and peck at my pocket where the food was; eventually I gave up and made my escape from the emu compound.

There were a few animals that remained hidden. Their two or three Tasmanian devils were all in hiding, alas. But I got some close looks at several animals I think of as fairly exotic: the echidna obligingly came out and stood in a patch of sun to get his picture taken, and the quolls were snoozing in a hollow log that was fortunately quite easy to see from where I was standing (though too dark for photos).

All in all a very fun experience, made better by the lack of crowds (I was very glad to have arrived at a time when no tour buses were around, so I shared the place with three or four families). I spent an enjoyable hour or so, leaving me plenty of time to wash the wallaby spit off my hands, have dinner and drive out to the Penguin Parade (which deserves a separate article).

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[ 14:14 Jan 25, 2008    More travel/melbourne08 | permalink to this entry | ]