Saturday, July 9, 2011

Victor Harbor, or, Our Lady of the Torch

Mr Tabubil and I took a long weekend and drove down to Victor Harbor. Victor Harbor is on the south side of the Flerurieu Peninsula, about an hour and a half drive south of Adelaide.  The town is popular in winter for whale-watching,  when the Southern Wright whales mate and calve in the waters around the long shallow bay. (We didn't see any.)  Victor Harbor is also known for its dynamic pink and orange sunsets. (These we did see. They were very pink and very orange, just as advertised.)  

At one end of the long bay stands Granite Island - a grand lump of granite rock, green and steep and windswept.  

           A walking track ranges around the edge of the island - mostly scrambling up and down rocky cliff faces, gently sloping and turf-covered on the mainland side, tall and grand and crashing into the ocean.  Mr Tabubil thought he might have seen a whale in the far distance; we squinted through the wind out into the heaving seas, but we saw nothing that couldn't have been spume on some large-scale waves.
             We weren't despondent. We hadn't come here for whales.  We'd come for the penguins.

Granite Island is a breeding ground for Little Penguins - also known as fairy penguins, and at dusk they come trooping out of the sea and head inland to their burrows. The guides use orange torches – penguin eyes have six times our own sensitivity to light, but the red-spectrum flashlights don’t seem to bother them even slightly. Perhaps they don’t even notice; after being micro chipped as soon as they emerge from their burrows as brand new chicks, blinking at the starlight for the very first time, being a nightly floor show might not seem very much of an invasion.

We had a very silly guide. She was very small and very round and talked with a smile and an engaging lisp – and she loved to talk about penguins. But what she didn't love so much was showing us the penguins she was talking about.

             As we followed her along the shoreline, we would twist around to see other groups and other flashlights in the distance, circles of orange light bouncing around the rocks, illuminating little birds, while our guide stood in the center of the boardwalk and lectured us on penguin mating habits with her flashlight pointed firmly at her feet.

             She was no ivory-towered academic – she had a keen understanding of what was going on around her. If we made, tentatively, to wander towards the lights and birds in the distance, sharp calls of “Attention please!!!” would catch us as we slunk and she would remain pointedly silent until she had her whole flock safely back with her again.
             All around us, little penguins huddled in tremulous bundles of feathers, preening, chirping, hummocking, and tiptoe-ing gingerly through the sand grass.

             They moved in clusters - huddling at the edge of water, until they were in small clusters of three or four, and then they head off inland towards their burrows, moving like comic opera robbers and night watchmen. Furtive and bumbling.

             They nest high in the cliffs – using their flippers as wedges to climb the rocks! This we didn’t see, because our guide was standing silently with her torch off because Mr Tabubil and I had tried to do a runner, but we did see the burrows when she briefly mislaid her light and shone it twenty meters up a cliff!
             Penguins are intrinsically exotic, but here they are prosaically everywhere – stuffed into the rocks that shore up shipping containers, nesting underneath wooden cafĂ© decks, wedged into the base of a jetty and halfway up a seawall. Our silly guide found us an entrancing family group (two parents plus two chicks), and then abruptly deserted them for a dissertation on the markings and behavior of the common brush possum.
             Stopping under under a tree, she pulled a penguin pelt from a satchel. She switched her orange torch for a white one, nicely ruining our light vision (we suspected deliberate intent) and talked about penguin feathers, with many digressions and assurances that pelts for demonstration purposes came exclusively from birds that were found dead of natural causes, or washed up on shore, or found floating adrift  - dead of natural causes all.
             Behind her, a penguin waddled out from behind a rock, inflated his chest, rumbled a long ascending bass note, waggled his wings, wriggled his bottom, and howled out a falsetto shriek.
             The guide’s reluctant audience defected in a rush. The bird basked modestly in the applause, then threw back his head and gave three encores.
             Exhaling heavily through her nose, our stomped over to where we were swooning and pointed her torch at our faced.
            “He does this every time – ruins my talk. I keep hoping he just won’t be here one day and let me do my talking in peace for once. Oh for heavens sake – would everybody please come away and leave him alone? If he doesn’t get attention he’ll stop showing off like that.”
             The group utterly failed to pay attention.
            “I said, would everybody come here now? He’s just showing off and doesn’t need encouraging. I am doing – for you- a talk about penguins.”
             Pointing up at the tree, she expounded lengthily to an audience of absolutely no one upon the tree’s geographical range and the place of Granite Island within that extraordinary and biologically entrancing range... and stopped, and looked back at where we were still a rapt and appreciative audience for the showboating bird.
            “Stay with the group." She said icily, "Or we are done.  I'll take you right back to the visitors centre this minute." 
             Mr Tabubil and I made an executive decision and defected to a group coming up at our rear, making a swift dash through the darkness between flashlight cones.
             This new guide spoke little, murmuring softly as she swung her torch from penguin to penguin, while ahead of us, in the distance, we saw Our Lady of the Torch, illuminating another possum.

Understandably, we don't have any photos of the penguins.  So here's a dynamic pink and orange sunset instead.

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