Research has played an important role in protecting the last little penguin population on Phillip Island.

Little penguin research on Phillip Island has been ongoing for over 45 years – one of the longest continuous seabird studies in the world. As penguins spend 80% of time at sea but have to return to land to breed, our penguin research projects include studies on land and at sea.

Research at sea

Satellite and GPS tracking
A challenge for little penguin conservation and management is to understand where penguins spend most of their time – the sea – and potential threats in the ocean environment.

During penguin breeding season, Phillip Island Nature Parks’ researchers track little penguins to find out where they were going fishing. The satellite tracking showed that most of Phillip Island’s little penguins fed within 50 kilometres of the Phillip Island colony. Some penguins over winter have been tracked heading west towards Portland in Victoria or into Port Phillip Bay near Melbourne city.

Diving and foraging behaviour

Our researchers use electronic loggers such as time depth recorders and accelerometers to measure diving activity of little penguins. The use of these loggers has uncovered important information like the number, depth and duration of dives, and if the penguin found food.

  • Little penguins usually dive between 200 and 1,300 times per day in search of prey.
  • Longest dive by a little penguin – 1 minute 56 seconds
  • Deepest dive by a little penguin ever recorded – 72 metres
  • The average dive of a little penguin lasts 25 seconds.

logger evolution


Research on land

Land threats
By the 1980s nine of Phillip Island’s ten penguin colonies had become extinct.

Population studies of Phillip Island’s little penguins in the 1980s showed that land based threats such as habitat destruction from housing development, traffic through the penguin colony at night, fire and domestic pets were having a significant impact on Phillip Island’s last remaining penguin colony. Predictions from the impact of such threats suggested the Penguin Parade would be wiped out by the late 1990s.

In response to the research, the Penguin Protection Program was initiated and the Victorian State Government began buying back homes in the Summerland Estate, located in Phillip Island’s last remaining penguin colony on the Summerland Peninsula.

The extensive conservation work undertaken since the 1980s has resulted in an increase in little penguin numbers from 12,000 in the mid 1980s to an estimated 32,000 in the present day.

Research into little penguin threats continues, including investigating the threat of pests such as foxes and the impacts of climate change. 

Population counts
Every night at the Penguin Parade rangers count the number of little penguins crossing the beach. The average number of beach crossings per year at the Penguin Parade can then be calculated, providing an insight into potential changes in population numbers.

Penguin beach numbers

Breeding success
The breeding success of Phillip Island’s little penguins is monitored at study sites across the colony. The average number of chicks fledged per breeding pair is estimated each year.

Penguin chicks fledged