In the 1980s on Victoria’s Phillip Island, a little-known state government decision was made to secure the future of the resident little penguin population—and still to this day it is believed to be a world first in environmental conservation.
But the decision came with considerable heartache.
Phillip Island sits 140 kilometres south-east of Melbourne, famous amongst motoring enthusiasts, a popular holiday destination and the home of the Penguin Parade on Summerland Beach at the westernmost point of the island.
Each evening as the sun sets, what is believed to be the world’s largest colony of little penguins emerge from the surf and waddle up the sand, past eagerly awaiting tourists.
The penguins then make their way to burrows in the Summerland Peninsula directly above the beach to incubate eggs, feed chicks and moult feathers.
Penguins once shared this windswept peninsula and its spectacular views of the ocean with people.
In the 1920s this peninsula — with little more than tussock growing on it and steep cliffs that plunged into the Bass Strait — was subdivided into 900 blocks of land and named Summerland Estate.
By the late 1940s, a handful of Melbourne families had bought blocks of land and built simple fibro holiday houses.
A place of healing
Sitting at the estate, Jean Verwey recalled school holidays spent exploring rock pools, riding horses and swimming in the ocean.
“For us children it was just the most wonderful place,” Ms Verwey said.
And while it was a place of utter joy for the children, Ms Verwey now also recognises it as a place of healing for her father and other returned World War II soldiers.
“This end of the island particularly was totally remote but wild and beautiful and I think just to be in such a natural place of enormous beauty must have had an incredible healing effect on them.”
It really did sound like living in a nature documentary, not only wild and rugged but with the added element of living within a penguin rookery.
“In the middle of the night the call of the penguins, they sound like donkeys braying and if we didn’t remember to tell any guests they’d be sitting bolt upright in the middle of the night wondering what on earth was happening,” Ms Verwey said.
The penguins weren’t just roaming around the estate; they often burrowed under the houses. Each night just a thin set of floorboards separated the people from the penguins.
Phil Dixon was one of the few permanent residents at Summerland Estate, having moved to the estate in 1978. She said living among the penguins became a regular part of life.
“We always slept with the window open because we loved to listen to the waves as they came in and the penguins in the background, so it was great,” Ms Dixon said.
Fellow Summerland Estate resident Elisabeth Lundahl-Hegedus had a similar experience.
“We had a major penguin path going right past the house, so if we wanted to watch penguins we could just look at them through the window,” Ms Lundahl-Hegedus said.
Penguins in decline
By the 1980s, Summerland Estate consisted of roughly 177 houses and things began to change.
The local penguin study group was becoming increasingly concerned by the declining penguin population.
Dr Peter Dann, the current director of research at Phillip Island Nature Parks, was employed to investigate this issue.
“It became pretty obvious from the outset that there were a lot of dead penguins around the colony,” Dr Dann said.
“Many of them had been killed by either foxes or dogs, there was also a lot of penguins getting run over on the roads through the Summerland Estate,” he said.
The issue was hotly debated amongst locals and Dr Dann said it became fairly controversial.
“Some people thought it might have been due to the tourism itself, other people thought it might have been due to the housing estate which was in the middle of the colony.”
But the one thing Dr Dann was certain about was the problem was only going to get worse, as more of the land in the estate was built on and the population grew.
“I had very good data suggesting that the Penguin Parade would cease to exist because it would have no penguins by 1997.”
Yet he was sceptical that any real change would be made.
“I was becoming increasingly despondent, there were so many vested interests and stake holders in the process that it looked like we wouldn’t get any resolution to the problems,” Dr Dann said.
Then in July 1985, after a series of lobbying and debate, in an unprecedented move then-premier John Cain announced that the state government had decided to buy back the entire estate and return it to a wildlife reserve for the little penguins.
“I think there were a number of forces at work, there was the conservation lobby, some of the local residents, the tourism industry,” Mr Cain recalled.
“I think underlying all that there was a growing realisation that the penguins and what they brought by way of novelty, historic past and conservation values had to be accommodated in any plans.”
Acknowledging the determination of then-environment minister Joan Kirner, Mr Cain said she was able to gain the support of the government.
“You have an obligation as the custodians of the land or people responsible for the time being to see the long term and not just the immediate past and the immediate future,” Mr Cain explained.
Dr Dann said he was elated by the state government’s decision and still believed it remained an unprecedented environmental conservation decision.
“I think it’s a world first … we can’t find any example of a town being purchased for conservation purposes, so it’s a very unusual situation but certainly penguins have been the big winners and Victorians too, I think,” Dr Dann said.
What the buyback meant for residents
But, of course this abstract buyback scheme was decided on in Melbourne, and meant that on Phillip Island, a physical community would soon cease to exist.
Not surprisingly, the premier’s decision was met with far less enthusiasm from Summerland property owners.
“We were horrified and deeply shocked and incredibly saddened that all of this was going to come to an end,” Ms Verwey said.
Ms Lundahl-Hegedus was shocked by the news, “we knew nothing about it, there was just a sudden announcement”.
The state government had allowed $10.5 million to buy back properties over the next 15 years — during which time residents could choose to stay or go. After that, properties would be compulsorily acquired.
But the buyback scheme ended up taking an extra 10 years, eventually concluding in 2010, following a tumultuous period many blamed on a lack of funding.
“The awful thing was that it went for so long and we were in such a state of limbo,” Ms Verwey said.
“We just waited and waited and invariably prices went up so there was less places purchased each year.”
While the future of the estate remained uncertain, residents complained that they were prohibited from working on their property.
“We weren’t allowed to build anything, we weren’t even allowed to build a shed or a carport or anything at all. We were allowed maintenance only,” Ms Lundahl-Hegedus said.
As uncertainty grew, the community of Summerland Estate became increasingly divided.
“And of course the way people are, they took it out on Penguin Parade because ultimately they were the people that wanted this to happen, even though it wasn’t their decision and it wasn’t them doing it,” Ms Lundahl-Hegedus said.
Other residents felt unfairly blamed for the decline of the penguin population.
“The way things were written and said, was as if we were the bad guys, we were the people who were putting the penguins at risk, when in fact the opposite had been the case,” Ms Verwey claimed.
Ms Verwey, Ms Dixon and Ms Lundahl-Hegedus all stayed until the very end of the buyback program.
Sitting at what was once Ms Verwey’s family property, with sweeping views of Summerland Beach, Ms Verwey said she finds it painful to return to the estate.
“I don’t come up here where we are on the site of the old house … I start to feel quite anxious,” Ms Verwey explained.
The length of the buyback scheme and ultimately losing this personally significant property took its toll on Ms Verwey and her family.
“We finally left in 2008, we were angst-ridden, we discussed it at length,” she said.
“We felt a bit like being on death row where at any moment we were going to get the chop and we didn’t know when.”
Ms Verwey wasn’t present the day in 2008 her family’s holiday house was finally removed from the estate. She said it would’ve been “far too traumatic”.
The successful nature reserve
Driving along the gravel road that wraps around the Summerland Peninsula, unless you knew the history of the estate, you would never realise the deep connection that people hold to the place, the buildings that once stood and the community that once existed.
But the pungent smell of penguin urine, the well-worn penguin pathways and the purpose-built wooden penguin burrows are a giveaway of the thriving population now occupying the area.
Sitting at the stands of the Penguin Parade, where thousands of tourists come each night to watch the penguins returning to land, Dr Dann described the buyback as a huge success.
“It was almost immediate that we saw the increase in the numbers of penguins once we got rid of the dog and road mortality,” Dr Dann said.
And now, roughly 40 years on, Dr Dann is just as confident the buyback was the right decision.
“The proof’s in the pudding now that the population has grown from about 12-14,000 breeding birds and declining in 1984 to 36,000 and stable,” he said.
Protecting the area for the penguins has also been beneficial for other species like the mutton bird that nest on the peninsula and more recently the successful release of the endangered eastern barred bandicoot.
Not to mention the estimated $498 million contribution the Penguin Parade makes to the state’s economy each year.