Plight of the penguins

The sun shines weakly through the clouds as Callum walks along the beach across from his home in Dawesville, Mandurah, with his wife and children. The family are alone on this grey September afternoon as they search along the beach for shells. Callum walks up to the sand dunes to check for shells hidden under the piles of seaweed. But as he approaches the dunes, it’s not a shell which catches his attention.

“I saw what I thought was just a dead bird,” Callum says, as he recounts the afternoon.

“So, I decided to walk over and have a look at it. And then, I realised it was a penguin.”

The little penguin as it was found in Dawesville. Photo: Craig Duncan.

Callum found a little penguin, one of about 20 which have washed up along the Western Australian coast since July this year in a development that has penguin conservation experts very concerned. This is just the latest issue for Penguin Island’s little penguins, whose population fell by about 80 per cent from 2007–2019 after a marine heatwave in 2010 and 2011. Another heatwave hit early this year, killing fish and causing malnutrition and deaths in the already reduced penguin population. The surviving penguins are so underweight they cannot breed, with this year’s breeding season considered a failure.

The little penguins are one of Rockingham’s main tourist attractions. Photo: Kasey Gratton.

The penguins bring crowds of tourists to Rockingham and feature on everything from street names to the council’s logo. Residents of the city want the State Government to intervene and save the iconic birds before it’s too late.

The little penguin, scientific name Eudyptula minor, is also known as the blue or fairy penguin. The smallest of all 18 species of penguin, they live around the southern coast of Australia and New Zealand, with colonies in WA on islands protected from predators. They are found at Mistaken Island near Albany and on both Penguin and Garden Islands off Rockingham. The Penguin Island and Garden Island birds are considered part of the same metapopulation of penguins but live in separate colonies.   

Penguin Island is a popular destination for families. Photo: Kasey Gratton.

Penguin Island is an A-class reserve managed by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions and is advertised as a fun family day-out. It was once home to the biggest population of penguins in WA, but population surveys by the DBCA show the colony has fallen from an initial estimate of 1100–2200 between 2007 and 2011, to just 309 penguins in 2019.

This suggests the population decreased between 72 and 86 per cent in just 12 years.

Dr Erin Clitheroe, an honorary research fellow in the Department of Environmental and Conservation Sciences at Murdoch University, has coordinated fortnightly monitoring of nests on Penguin Island since 2010. She says it is difficult to gain an exact figure as population surveys are taken during the peak of the nesting season, but not all birds breed every year and non-nesting birds and juveniles are not counted.

Image of Dr Erin Clitheroe holding a penguin chick.
Dr Erin Clitheroe has worked with the Penguin Island colony since 2007. Photo: Erin Clitheroe.

“The really important thing here is not so much the actual number of birds, but the decline,” Clitheroe says.

“That’s the one thing we can be certain about. Even though there’s some uncertainty about the actual number of little penguins, the decline is real.”

A marine heatwave that affected the WA coast between January and April this year decimated fish supplies in the penguins’ usual foraging areas around Comet Bay. Most of the birds did not achieve the body condition required to breed, with only one or two breeding successfully. Clitheroe says the nesting season was a “complete failure”.  

“This year we’ve had probably one of the poorest breeding seasons that I’ve ever seen,” she says.

Little penguins need to eat about a quarter of their body weight each day, and low fish numbers due to the marine heatwave means they must travel further to find enough food. Many are becoming so exhausted in the process they cannot swim any further and are forced onto the mainland to rest, where some succumb to their fatigue.

In this video Dr Clitheroe explains the symptoms of exhaustion affecting the penguins. Video: Kasey Gratton.

Dead penguins found by members of the public and reported to wildlife rescue centres have been provided to the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development for autopsies. Results have shown the main cause of death is a lack of subcutaneous fat and severe malnourishment.

DBCA’s marine and river park coordinator for the metropolitan area Melissa Evans says these findings demonstrate the direct impact of the marine heatwave on the penguins.

Melissa Evans oversees the management of Penguin Island in her role at the DBCA. Photo: Kasey Gratton.

“The birds will keep swimming and looking for food,” she says.

“They’re obviously using a lot of that stored fat. For them to have a lack of subcutaneous fat, [it] shows that they’re expending much more energy that they’re able to gain…they’ve actually used all those additional stores in their body.”

In this video Melissa Evans explains why penguins have been found as far as Dunsborough. Video: Kasey Gratton.

The Bureau of Meteorology defines a marine heatwave as a period of at least five days where sea surface temperatures are warmer than 90 per cent of previously recorded temperatures for that time of year in the preceding 30 years. This year’s heatwave was caused by a La Niña event which has exacerbated the Leeuwin Current which runs down the WA coast, increasing sea surface temperatures in the waters off Perth by one to two degrees. Although it may seem like only a small rise in temperature, the Penguin Island colony is particularly sensitive to changes in sea surface temperatures as it is located at the northern limit of the little penguins’ habitat range.

“They’re going to be really feeling the effects of just even small changes in climate because they’re right at the edge of that threshold,” Clitheroe explains.

Evans is coordinating an investigation into the penguins’ situation this year with other organisations involved in the care of wild penguins, including WA Seabird Rescue, Murdoch University and WA Wildlife.

WA Wildlife is a not-for-profit organisation which runs the WA Wildlife Hospital in Bibra Lake which treats native animals, many brought in by the public. Last year the organisation did not treat any penguins, but this year the hospital has admitted eight penguins since July. Senior veterinarian Dr Meg Rodgers has overseen their treatment. 

Dr Meg Rodgers in the treatment room at WA Wildlife Hospital. Photo: Kasey Gratton.

“It’s usually pretty rare for penguins to be admitted to the hospital,” she says.

“We see the odd one with a boat strike injury or fishing line injury, but they only come in on occasion. It’s unusual that so many have been washing up over the last two months, and it’s still ongoing. 

“To my knowledge, we haven’t had an event like this with the penguins in recent history.” 

Dr Meg Rodgers
This juvenile penguin died shortly after it was taken to WA Wildlife Hospital. Photo: WA Wildlife.

Testing has ruled out diseases usually affecting penguins like Avian Influenza or Newcastle Disease.

“Most of them have just come in really, really skinny,” Rodgers says.

“Some of them have presented with respiratory signs as well, and are struggling to breathe on admission. The majority of them are either dead by the time they come in, or die shortly afterwards, despite veterinary intervention with oxygen therapy, fluids and active warming.”  

The WA Wildlife Hospital successfully rehabilitated one penguin they received this year. Found severely underweight and stuck in a crevasse at Woodman Point, testing revealed it also had a respiratory infection. It was treated for several weeks before it was tagged by the DBCA and released at Penguin Island.  

The penguin that was found at Woodman Point and released after several weeks of treatment at WA Wildlife Hospital. Photo: WA Wildlife.

This release is a rarity, as all other penguins found alive have not been able to be saved. Their deaths have repercussions on the ecosystem, because as Dr Clitheroe explains, little penguins are predators, “critical” in ensuring “proper functioning of marine food webs”.

Penguins are not the only seabirds being affected by the lack of fish. WA Wildlife Hospital has also recently treated several emaciated cormorants. Photo: Kasey Gratton.

“If you remove them, you’re likely to see destabilisation, and possibly, collapse of marine ecosystems,” she says.

“Seabirds are really awesome indicators of marine ecosystem health. They’re like a canary in the coal mine, so to speak.”

Dr Erin Clitheroe

“And when you start seeing large declines in populations of seabirds, like the ones we’re seeing in little penguins, that tells us that there’s really something very wrong in our marine environment.”

Rockingham locals recognise the importance of the penguins, which are ingrained in the identity of the city. In July, a group of concerned residents, wearing penguin costumes, held a protest outside the office of WA Premier, and Member for Rockingham, Mark McGowan.

Protest organiser and founder of the Save Rockingham’s Little Penguins group Dawn Jecks was elected to the Rockingham Council on October 16. During her campaign she pledged to work towards saving the Penguin Island colony.

Jecks says the Premier and Environment Minister need to direct the DBCA to “develop and implement a science-based recovery plan for the little penguins as a matter of the utmost urgency”. A spokesperson for the Environment Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson says the DBCA has “undertaken management actions to reduce any additional pressures” on the penguins, including reducing boat speed limits in Shoalwater Bay.

Perth Wildlife Encounters operates the ferry which takes tourists across Shoalwater Bay to Penguin Island. General manager Chad D’Souza says the penguins need to be protected to ensure Rockingham’s economic future.

“If the penguins go, tourism goes. Rockingham probably loses a lot of that economic importance and money that comes to this place,” he says.

“That will cease to exist without a doubt.”

Terry Howson (L) and Chad D’Souza (R) from Perth Wildlife Encounters in Rockingham. Photo: Kasey Gratton.

The DBCA has reportedly received $3.3 million from the State Government to replace the discovery centre on Penguin Island which was built in 1995 to house and display rehabilitated penguins. Both Perth Wildlife Encounters and the former mayor of Rockingham Barry Sammels, who was in the position for 18 years, want some of this funding used to build a discovery centre at Mersey Point where the ferry terminal is based. Sammels says this will allow visitors to see the penguins when the island is closed during their breeding season from June to September.

Perth Wildlife Encounters owner and founder Terry Howson says the DBCA’s management of Penguin Island is preventing the new discovery centre from being built. Melissa Evans says the DBCA have no plans to build at Mercy Point as the land is owned by the Rockingham Council.

“It’s bureaucracy at its worst at the moment.”

Perth Wildlife Encounters owner and founder Terry Howson

“I swear to God, we’ve been to so many meetings and it just falls on deaf ears.”

Penguin Island is 660 metres from Rockingham. Photo: Kasey Gratton.

Although the penguins’ future is uncertain, there is some hope the population may begin to recover, with recent fortnightly monitoring of the colony showing late signs of nesting. But this may be impacted as summer approaches and the penguins undergo their annual moult. During this time, they cannot swim and, therefore, cannot eat for its two-to-three week duration.

“A lot of birds will abandon their nest once they have to go and fatten up [before] their moult,” Dr Clitheroe explains.

Evans says it will be a “race against time” for the penguins to raise their chicks before they start moulting.

An additional pressure will be nest temperatures increasing as the weather heats up.

“…The chicks are going to be using a lot of energy thermoregulating,” Clitheroe says.

“And if the chicks are using all their energy to try and keep cool in the nest, that means they’re less likely to reach that critical weight that they need to fledge successfully.”

In November, Evans is holding a meeting with the on-ground managers of Penguin Island, penguin researchers, and the City of Rockingham to brainstorm research questions and prioritise funding for the most critical research projects, “with the ultimate outcome of assisting the penguins”.

Despite the challenges the penguins are facing, Clitheroe believes the Penguin Island colony will continue to survive, even if it is reduced to a very low population.

“…I think they absolutely have a chance of recovery,” she says. “But we really need to look at all the options we have to help them, to support them through this changing climate that we’re seeing.

“They’re quite tenacious and they’re really adaptable. That’s what I love most about little penguins, their tenacity. They’re just fighters.”

Dr Rodgers explains what to do if you find an unwell penguin on a beach. Video: Kasey Gratton.

WA Wildlife: 9417 7105

Wildcare Helpline: 9474 9055

WA Seabird Rescue: 6102 8464