BARELY A RIPPLE SNAGS the shoreline as we push lazily off across Safety Bay, adjusting skirts and rudders and dipping paddles into the clear water that washes over seagrass beds below.
It has become our Christmas Day ritual to slip quietly away from a house full of sleeping relatives, paddle out to Penguin Island, WA, and drift among the dolphins and sea lions as the sun rises.
Lying less than a kilometre offshore, a string of rocky islets is protected as Shoalwater Islands Marine Park and populated by a surprisingly rare collection of marine and bird species.
Its location, just 45 km south of Perth, makes it one of the world's most significant city-based marine sanctuaries. The marine park's easy access and protected waters make for perfectly pleasurable paddling.
Wildlife of Penguin Island
Linked by a thin tendril of sand at low tide, Penguin Island is a stone's throw from the mainland, but it is here that you can observe the west's largest colony of little penguins (Eudyptula minor).
About 600 breeding pairs call this 12.5 ha island home, coming ashore under the cover of darkness to nests hidden in rugged limestone pockets.
They share Penguin Island's protected headlands and beaches with up to 30 other bird species, including a rare breeding colony of Australian pelicans, who mysteriously arrived on the island in 1998, and a 5000-strong flock of migratory bridled terns.
About 2500 pairs of bridled terns journey south to the Shoalwater islands to breed each spring, departing again in April for the north-west Sulawesi (Celebes) Sea. Lured by rich fish stocks, bottlenose dolphins shoot through the shallows on thrilling fishing runs, and Australian sea lions - the rarest in the world - haul out on neighbouring Seal Island.
Penguin Island: tourism
On calm days, Penguin and Seal islands are within easy reach of paddlers who arrive armed with snorkelling gear to explore the Little Penguin Dive Trail's underwater cliffs laced with gorgonian fans, coral bombies and sea caves.
Although you can't set foot on Seal Island, sea kayakers hovering along the shoreline get great views of the piles of sea lions lazily warming themselves on the island's stretch of sand.
Over on Penguin Island, kayakers can dodge the $12 ferry fee and land their boats through shallow waters onto a protected beach on the island's north-east side. Boardwalks across Penguin Island lead to pelican-nesting sites, fishing and surf spots, and an underwater-viewing area where rescued and rehabilitated little penguins can be observed.
The volunteers at Penguin Experience Island Discovery Centre provide commentaries at feeding times three times a day (10.30 a.m., 12.30 p.m. and 2.30 p.m.) and a glass-panelled pool allows close-up underwater views of the little penguins.
Entrance to the centre is included in the $12 ferry fee, but independent arrivals pay $6.50/adult, $5/concession or $3.50/child to view the penguins.
Exploring the island's boardwalks, beaches and underwater wonders costs nothing, making Penguin Island a popular destination to fish, snorkel, dive and unpack a picnic.
Translucent seas wash over seagrass beds that hide a huge variety of fish, and underwater cliffs on the island's northern and southern tips are amazing spots to snorkel.
To reach the island's Little Penguin Dive Trail, follow the beach to the south of the island and swim out and alongside a heavily undercut platform reef adorned with bright corals.
Swim south along the edge of the broken reef and over a coral bombie to discover a big cave on the southern side of the reef that is crowded with fish. The Little Penguin Dive Trail is an easy endeavour in calm conditions, but is best snorkelled in the morning before the area's prevailing south-westerly winds kick up.
Another recommended snorkelling site is the underwater trail off nearby Cape Peron where interpretive signs mounted on the seafloor lead you on a 60 m adventure in depths of 2-3 m.
Fishing is permitted on Penguin Island and promising spots include the northern edge of the sand spit or off the beach on the western side of the island where there is good surfing, too, in the right conditions. Wheelchair-accessible boardwalks lead to scenic lookouts ideal for watching the vast flocks of pelicans.
History and culture of Penguin Island
There are no native mammals on the island (if you exclude the odd visiting sea lion), but in the early 1920s Penguin Island's limestone caves housed hermit Seaforth McKenzie who lived in a shack he called his 'manor'.
Back then, holiday-makers indulged in McKenzie's generous hospitality, camping on the beach or making use of his roughly furnished caves. Today the island's prime real estate is reserved strictly for the birds, and that's precisely why it is so popular.
Guided interpretative walks around the island offer deeper insights into the island's cultural and natural history, departing twice daily from the Discovery Centre (11.15 a.m. and 1.15 p.m.). Penguin Island is open to visitors during daylight hours only from September to June, closing each winter to allow the little penguins to breed undisturbed.
Facilities are limited to picnic shelters and composting toilets - both with wheelchair access, so BYO picnic and plenty of cold drinks.
By far the best way to reach the island is by kayak, thereby avoiding the controversy posed by the sand spit that links the island and mainland at low tide, luring some locals to wade across the 700 m wide channel.
This is despite warnings about the peril of rapidly changing sea conditions and reports of a handful of waders getting themselves into trouble each year.
Those with small boats can launch from boat ramps on the Safety Bay foreshore or alongside the causeway that overlooks Garden Island to the north, or simply board the local ferry ($12 per person).
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