Bowen Island revisited

This is getting a bit behind because the field season is in full swing and I am basically running from island to island.

Below is a guest entry from Zinnia Janif, one of the three volunteers who accompanied me during the second trip to Bowen Island:

The Penguins of Bowen Island

Driving to the Island

The drive from UNSW out to Booderee National Park in Jervis Bay took about 3 – 4 hours.  Sandra drove 3 volunteers Len, William and Zinnia all the way, with only a stop for dinner in Nowra. Upon arrival late in the evening, we were presented with a relatively luxurious house, considering we were doing ‘field work’. As it turned out, the lovely people of Booderee National Park provide the house for visiting scientists to stay free of charge.

On the Island

The Sea Eagle III, which took us to Bowen Island

On Friday morning we woke quite early around 7.30, had breakfast, packed up and bid goodbye to the house in Jervis Bay. We then headed off to the park office to pack all our gear into the boat that would take us to Bowen Island. The boat was still very new, only bought a few months ago by the national parks people.

Our main contact and boat driver was Martin, who has a clear passion for penguins (having himself worked on the Bowen Island colony for many years). He and Chico, another very nice National Parks ranger, drove us down to Murrays Beach, where we launched the boat and off we went. Thus, our adventure began and we were on our way to Bowen Island.

Visions of Paradise on Bowen Island

Upon our arrival, we spotted a few dolphins cruising around the island. On land, we arrived to what looked like paradise, white sand surrounded by crystal blue water with the sun smiling overhead.

We were all extremely excited to be on Bowen Island and could already see hundreds of penguin footprints winding trails in the sand. However, there was not a penguin in sight, which is not surprising given that they only come ashore at night or hide in their burrows during the day.

Penguin footprints on the beach

We unloaded our gear, carried it to the house and had a bit of a rest. We then went to check the penguin burrows from a list Sandra regularly monitors. The burrows were littered as mounds across the landscape, dug out by the penguins.

William, Len and Zinnia were extremely excited and could not contain their enthusiasm to finally see a wild penguin.

Sandra looking inside a burrow with Len and William recording data

Sandra peered into each of the burrows with a flash light. Chubby, fluffy baby penguins of different stages stared back with the occasional adult snapping at Sandra’s fingers.

After another break and a refreshing dip in the ocean Sandra mentioned that we would have to learn how to handle the penguins properly.

Tea break with Sandra, Zinnia and Len
(Photo: William Kerridge)

We then went to an occupied burrow and Sandra pulled out a fat, young penguin that was quite docile and luckily for us did not have the sharp hook at the end of its beak yet. She put it in a box so that we could get ready for holding it under her supervision.

Penguin and microchip scanner

We all then put gloves on and learned to correctly handle them. You have to support the body and make sure the tiny wings were secured, so they don’t break.

For the night, we created a penguin corral with nettings and poles. We put our head lights and rain coats on (so we could wash off penguin poo if needed). Then we waited for the penguins to come to shore and be gently directed into the corral.

Sandra showing William how to hold a penguin properly

Just before they come ashore, a dark blob called a raft can be seen moving through the water. They would start coming to land after sunset and we would check and release them until about 10pm each night.

Sandra and William inspecting the penguin fence

The penguins were herded into an area where we could check them for microchips. We worked in 2 teams of 2 people, the herding/catching group and the microchip checking/weighing group.

Checking weights and microchips at night
(Photo: Len Martin)

Although the penguins look quite cute and cuddly they are wild animals and when you don’t hold them properly they can get a bit aggressive, with the hook on the beak being incredibly sharp too. However, when the penguins were held properly some of them tended to just sit in your hands quite calmly. Each bird had a different temperament – some were bold and aggressive while others were quiet and kind.

Penguins barely visible while coming ashore

On the way back to the house after the nightly penguin checks, we walked along what we called the Penguin Highway, and which was extremely busy. Fluffy fat penguins would emerge from their burrows as the penguin chatter intensified and they would curiously stumble about as their parents would squawk loudly. Sometimes penguins would pop out and cross your path as you walked in the dark. You had to be extra careful not to accidentally step on them.

Heading home

Fluffy penguin chick retreating to the safety of the burrow

Back in the house, we went to sleep with the loud chatter of penguins in the air. During the next two days, we repeated the penguin field work routine of burrow checks during the day and beach captures at night. In total, we checked over 40 burrows each day and captured more than 500 penguins for microchip checks over three successive nights.

The house on Bowen Island
(Photo: Len Martin)

The Island Scenery

The old, now dismantled wharf has been amiably re-named ‘bird-shit Island’ by William. The rocks are covered in white guano from different sea birds, mainly cormorants and pelicans.

The dismantled wharf

Bowen Island is protected and access is completely restricted except by permit. We felt quite special about being in such a beautiful place, even more to after seeing the sign located on the island.

Access restrictions to Bowen Island

The Scenery of the Island completely changes from one side to the other. The western side has beautiful white sand and stunning beaches, while the other side is covered in dense vegetation and ends in sheer cliffs. Here we are all enjoying the views from one of the cliffs.

All four of us (William, Zinnia, Len and Sandra) sitting on the cliff
(Photo: Len Martin)

The Island is one of the most beautiful places I ever set foot on. However, the island’s most captivating secret emerges only after dusk. The little penguins with their curiosity and enchanting beauty definitely found a place in my heart.

(Photo: Len Martin)