When Is the Best Time
The penguins at St Kilda pier are present year-round. St. Kilda is a suburb south of the city centre of Melbourne in Victoria. Most of the little blue or fairy penguins come from the sea after sunset. It's an awesome experience to watch the smallest penguin of all waddles in throughout the evening after their hunt for fish at sea.
It is cute how they walk and jump to their burrows between the rocks and make noise. To spot as many as possible, you need to visit at the right time of day and during the right season. Thanks to my Melburnian friend Rik, I already spotted them a couple of times. He always gives me tons of tips and advice—the reason I had to write this article. I want you to get the same insights for an unforgettable experience.
The best times to watch penguins in this unique onshore colony is during the main breeding and feeding season and the moulting season from October to April. Google Maps location entrance gate to the penguin pier.
Best Penguin Viewing Besides St. Kilda
I got tons of messages if there is any chance to see them at St. Kilda. If you wish to spot the little blue penguins before 2024, the best location is Phillip Island, where the little blue penguin population is hitting records. This October, 5440 penguins were seen in one evening in just 50 minutes. Experts think the reason for these records is the food availability caused by "La Nina". Because of the wetter conditions, there are plenty of sardines and anchovies. It is an almost two hours drive south of St. Kilda, or book a guided tour via GetYourGuide at no extra cost with the free cancellation option for up to 24 hours in advance. You will find more about the St. Kilda closure below.
Time of Day | When to See the Penguins
Every day after sunset, the penguins come ashore from the sea to their nests at St Kilda Breakwater. You can spot them waddling to their rock homes after sunset. 9-12 hours later, they get back to the sea before sunrise. The pier is open 24 hours. To spot them, be there any time after sunset. Check sunset (and sunrise times) here: Sunrise/Sunset Melbourne (select the month and then press 'Go').
The best daytime after sundown in terms of sightings is usually about 30 minutes after sunset. However, keep in mind that it gets crowded around sunset as everyone wants to see these cute guys.
My tips for a memorable visit:
- Visit Twice: If your schedule allows, visit St Kilda twice: Once in the late afternoon and again at or after sunset. Especially in the summer, it's very likely to spot some penguins already in the late afternoon. Visiting before sundown has a huge advantage; you can view and photograph them during daylight. However, it's highly recommended to watch the big groups waddling in after sunset as well but never guaranteed.
- Visit at Night / Before Sunrise: If you want to experience a tranquil visit, we suggest two times: Around 11 p.m. or in the very early morning, two hours before sunrise. Particularly before sunrise, you won't see other groups of visitors and can check out the penguins in solitude. After 11 p.m., it's usually quiet as well, except for Friday or Saturday nights. The downside when visiting at night is the darkness. That means you'd need a very good (expensive) low-light camera and a fast lens for taking photos (using flash is not allowed, it hurts and scares the penguins!)
Update Mid-September 2022 - Closure of St. Kilda Pier
The St. Kilda Penguin colony is closed for an indefinite time. The good news is it will be opened again. They construct an entirely new viewing area. The repair works at the St.Kilda Pier will last until mid-2024! Since spring 2021, there have been building works going on at St. Kilda Beach to upgrade the old storm drain and extend the pier for about 450 meters. The new platform will lead above the sea so that you can watch the penguins arriving from the sea and waddling to their burrows.
Attached is a picture from my friend Rik who is living around the corner. And here is a new picture from August 28 from Rik of what the construction area looks like. The new St. Kilda Pier will run almost parallel to the existing pier. When completed, the old pier will be demolished. You can still walk down the existing pier (right) to the kiosk+cafe and marina, but the penguin viewing area, which is behind, is still fenced off and locked. You cannot go there.
It is unbelievable, but a penguin got attacked, thrown against a wall and killed by a group of young men at 2 am at night on October 27, 2021. This is heartbreaking to kill one of those vulnerable birds. These beautiful birds got harmed frequently with the new pier the burrows are no longer accessible to visitors. Most important is penguin conservation for the future.
Why Are Penguins at St. Kilda Pier
The rocky breakwater was built for the Olympic Games in 1956. In the 70s, the first Fairy Penguins were attracted for nesting in a safe environment at the St. Kilda breakwater, and more and more followed them. Now it is home to roughly 1.400 penguins, and the wild colony is still growing.
My Top Tour Tips for Melbourne
Melbourne is a fascinating city, the second most popular one in Australia and worth spending a couple of days in. I like the vibrant city life, the parks, and the lovely residents.
Penguins at St Kilda can be spotted throughout the year. However, there are significantly fewer penguins in the late spring and winter months of May, June and July. They are off on their winter jaunt when the weather gets colder in May/June. Most of the penguins are out at sea for a few weeks, feeding up with fish and getting ready for breeding later. Depending on various factors, the colony at St Kilda starts to grow each year again in August/September. Usually, you can spot plenty of penguins between October/November and March/April. Depending on the month, they build nests, lay eggs, and raise chicks or moulting (see below). During the moulting period, usually in January/February, you'll also spot slightly fewer penguins. They are out in the sea to gain weight for weeks. During the moulting season, penguins can't swim and stay on land. If you are interested in seeing the little ones: The peak number of chicks is in November and December.
It lasts for roughly three weeks. Some penguins are still out in the sea, some moult already. Old feathers fall out, and new plumage grows in shimmering blue. This usually happens between February and April. Penguins are sitting on a rock or in their burrow, not going to the sea. If penguins get white feathers, they will die soon; the reason is the stressful moulting.
- Feeding Up
Most penguins are out at sea a couple of weeks between May and July to feed up before breeding in spring. They eat as much fish as possible to gain weight. It's believed that anchovies and pilchards are St Kilda penguins' favourite food. In case you wonder where they sleep during this time: Penguins can nap while they're in the water.
- Nest Building, Egg Laying & Breeding
Some start building their nests between the rocks already early in June or July. They lay eggs a month later, but most from August/September until November. If they lay their eggs too late, the chicks may not survive. When the penguins start moulting, they can't feed their chicks any longer.
- Chick Raising
After 33-37 days of breeding, the chicks are raised from the earliest in August until the latest in March, although February is already rare. The parent's main duty is hunting for fish and returning to their nest each day to feed the chicks. At 7-11 weeks, the chicks are ready to leave the colony and go to the sea. They are out in the sea minimum for a year, often several years, before heading back to the colony if they survive.
My 3 Tips for Melbourne
Staying at a nearby hotel also means you avoid the traffic, which is horrible during rush hour. Parking fees around are pretty high.
Stay Close to St. Kilda
Crest on Park
I assume you are not only in Melbourne to spot the penguins. Therefore, spend a couple of days here within walking distance to the city centre and the penguins. I recommend at least three nights. When we visited Melbourne for the fourth time in September to show our nephew the penguins, we spotted just two. They were hiding behind a rock. He missed this wonderful experience because we were leaving the next day. The Crest on Park is an excellent hotel. You only walk 10 minutes until you reach St. Kilda Pier. Also close to shops, restaurants and just 20 minutes from the city centre. Trams run right in front of the hotel. Everything is very modern and super clean (opened in 2016). The staff is extremely helpful, rooms and beds are very comfy, it's quiet, and parking in front of. Highly recommended! More hotels after my third tip.
The Beach Boxes of Brighton Beach
Brighton Beach is a popular site for good reason. The picturesque bathing boxes and the beach are awesome spots to relax and enjoy the sea and the sunset.
Everything you need to know in my Brighton Beach Boxes article.
Cake Shops Acland Street
Be close to the beach, lush parks, and gardens as well as the cake and restaurant paradise along with Fitzroy and Acland Streets. Hungry after watching the penguins coming home to their burrows? In walking distance, just 15 minutes – 1 km are several famous cake shops with a long tradition on Acland Street. (Google Maps Location) Opening times; are usually from 8 am to 10 pm. The more than 85 years old Monarch Cakes Shop makes a chocolate “Kugelhopf” with an old recipe dating back to the beginning. It is a popular cake from central Europe. Our favourite one is the apple crumble from Le Bon Cake Shop so far.
Quest Grand Hotel Melbourne (fairly close)
This is my top tip if you want to stay in the real heart of Melbourne. You could walk to St. Kilda, although this takes over an hour. With public transport in less than 30 minutes Google Maps. Friends spent here an entire week. They told me the location can't be beaten! The accommodation is amazing, the staff accommodating and comfortable, spotless rooms. You can walk almost everywhere from here! It is Heritage listed and was formerly the Victorian Railways Administrative Office built-in 1893. In 1997 after a total renovation it was transformed into the impressive 5-star Grand Hotel and Grand Central Apartments.
Don't miss out on the fascinating flying foxes at Yarra Bend.
Which Camera Do I Use?
Most of my shots were taken with my Olympus OM-D EM 10 Mirrorless Micro-Four-Thirds camera. I love it so much because it’s not too big for my hands and I can carry it easily everywhere. The wonderful EVF is extremely bright and works perfect outdoors. I never go without my camera.
I use a Mark II and Mark III but my next one will be the OM-D E-M5 because the body is splashproof, dustproof, and freezeproof and provides a better image stabilization. Especially during rain, in the rain forest or close to a waterfall it is sometimes impossible to use the camera. During our road Trip through Utah and Arizona I had issues with the strong wind and the sand. I had to cleaning my camera daily.
My day-to-day lens is a Panasonic Lumix G Vario 12-60 mm. The Micro-Four-Thirds Sensor makes it easy to use Panasonic Lumix G Vario 100-300 mm which is equal to a 200-600mm lens for an APS-C Camera for shooting long range.
Best Months to Visit
Location and Tips
St. Kilda breakwater became a Fairy Penguin colony in the 1970s. The rock breakwater was built for the Olympic Games in 1956. Now it is home to roughly 1.400 penguins, and the wild colony is still growing.
Most of the St. Kilda pier is fenced to protect the penguins; only a small part is accessible. Unfortunately, in March 2016, some were brutally attacked and left dead by young people. Please, stay on the wooden platform and keep a distance from them. Volunteers and rangers are at St. Kilda each night to protect the penguins and to answer all visitor questions.
Protect the Penguins
- No flash photography
- No other flashlight, no smartphone light, red light only
- No selfie sticks near the rocks
- Do not get too close to, touch or feed the penguins
- No yelling, music or loud noise
- No dogs
- No littering
- No walking on the rocks
St Kilda Facts
- No entrance fee
- Open 24 hours year-round. Stay as long as you like.
- There are St Kilda Earthcare volunteers who will manage crowds and answer questions.
- St Kilda is one of only two penguin colonies on our planet located on a human-made structure.
- For the penguins, St Kilda breakwater is a substitute for an island, where they normally nest.
Earthcare of St Kilda was formed as a group of volunteers to protect this unique penguin colony. It would be a tremendous help to donate to the upkeep of the penguin team of St Kilda. The donation pole is on the left-hand side of the pier. It's opposite the far end of the kiosk.
Due to the repeated disturbance of the little penguins, the public viewing area is fenced since July 2017. You are still able to watch them, but please don't touch them, don't' try to put your camera into a burrow. Please let these penguins live in their natural habitat. If they get always disturbed, they will disappear one day.
8 Fairy Penguin Facts
- Maximum size 40 cm and weight one kg.
- They live on average 6-7 years.
- Typically diving between 10-30 meters to catch small fish, squid, or krill.
- Some return year-round to their burrow, but most of them stay at sea in autumn and winter.
- In the breeding season, the parents share the 33-37 days period of egg incubation.
- After hatching, the parents leave their chick unguarded to catch fish during the day.
- When the chicks are about 5 weeks old, they wait outside the burrow to get fed at night.
- Another 2-3 weeks later, they will leave the nest and their parents forever to move to the sea.
I took all these pictures. I travelled to Melbourne and wrote this detailed guide for you. So, please, if you wish to use any of my photos, contact me, but I will take action against picture theft!