A small island surrounded by the translucent waters of the Indian Ocean, littered with dolphins and seals, that’s home to penguins and numerous birds. An island where a literature-loving hermit lived for 12 years, who carved out a “library” and a “grand ballroom” from the scabrous limestone caves found within. Curiously, while sounding like a place at the end of the earth, Penguin Island lies a mere 45 minutes by car from the city of Perth.
When the tide is right, you can walk to this small haven via a long sandbar (not recommended), as it sits just 700 metres offshore from the town of Rockingham. Furthermore, at just 12 hectares in size, Penguin Island takes just 30 minutes to circumnavigate. Being so close to civilisation, one would half expect the island to be tainted by midnight pleasure seekers, yet it retains a feeling of raw isolation.
This is largely due to the efforts of the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC), who declared the island part of the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park in 1987.
I often visit Penguin Island, as it lies just 30 minutes by car from my parents home in White Gum Valley, adjacent to Fremantle. At least once a year I’ll make my way out to this rocky little seabird sanctuary. The walk to the island is wonderful, but the tide can come in quick, and two people have drowned making the crossing.
I’ve had to wade my way back in waist deep water on several occasions. If you’re choosing this option, just be wary of the strong currents and the tide. There’s also a boat to the island that departs from Rockingham every day on the hour, between nine and three. However, the island is closed to visitors in the winter months, from June to September, as this is the nesting time for the island’s eponymous attraction, the Little Penguin – the world’s smallest penguin.
These handsome little creatures are notoriously shy, so you’ll need good timing, caution and a bit of luck to see them in their natural habitat. I’ve missed a good sighting on several trips, however you can also view them from the island’s Discovery Centre, where they’re fed several times a day.
Things to do
The wildlife is the star attraction, as roughly 200 bottlenose dolphins are believed to surge, flop, flip and dive in close proximity to the island. And besides the numerous penguins, the island is home to a variety of birds, such as cormorants, darters, fairy terns, noddies, oystercatchers, ospreys, sea eagles and a sizeable colony of pelicans.
Tours to the island can be made in a glass bottom boat, complete with snorkelling excursion. There’s also a dolphin watching tour which will take you close to the flipping action, and a sea kayaking tour. Contact Rockingham Wild Encounters or Penguin Island Tours for more details. Facilities on the island include boardwalks and a water fountain. No food is sold on the island.
A little history
The first known person to live on Penguin Island, the aptly named Seaforth McKenzie, began squatting here in 1914, and in 1918 he was given an annual island lease by the Western Australian Government. Described as a “bearded man with gallant manners and a twinkling eye”, McKenzie, a lover of literature, fashioned a home out of the island’s limestone caves, even a library and a grand ballroom – where he was reputedly crowned “king of Penguin Island” at a grand ceremony.
Visitors were often invited to his cave for lamp-lit poetry readings, and he was said to be much liked by all. The eccentric McKenzie remained on the island until 1926, when he returned to his wife and family in New Zealand after an absence of 45 years. Giving arguably the most audacious excuse for familial oversight in the history of man, McKenzie declared to his family that he lost all memory when leaving work one day, having only just remembered they existed.
Today, all that remains of McKenzie’s time is a few nails in the limestone caves and a well, known as McKenzie’s Well.
What I love
Walking around the island, enjoying its raw, isolated mood. At the rear of the island, little beach pockets can be found nestled in between craggy limestone cliffs – a marvellous spot to laze about and/or go for a swim. The island is also a particularly lovely place to view the sunset.
Penguin Island is a must visit if you’re anywhere near Perth, although if you’re planning on getting there via a sandbar saunter, again, beware of the incoming tide.