Wild Encounters at Penguin Island, Western Australia

As a child, we took short family getaways to Shoalwater Beach, located south of Perth in Western Australia.  The beaches were white, the water was clear, the sea was calm and you looked out to the nearby Shoalwater Islands.  I use to see people walking across the sandbar to the rocky limestone island called Penguin Island.  I would beg my father to wade over to the island, but he always replied: “no, there’s nothing there.”  Though I am sure the other reason was that he knew it was dangerous to walk chest-deep through the water to the island.  However, one day when I was a bit older we went over to the island.  Arriving, I was so disappointed looking around at the desolate scrub lined beaches; there was nothing there and certainly no penguins to be found.

But now, 40 years on I know why I could not see penguins in the middle of hot a summer’s day and the infrastructure on Penguin Island has certainly changed.  I have also discovered that there is so much more to the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park than I ever realised.  It is home to wild dolphins, sea lions, birds, stingrays and more.

Join me as we explore Penguin Island and the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park.

In this Article on Penguin Island and Shoalwater Marine Park You Will Learn:


PLEASE NOTE:
Travel and border restrictions are constantly evolving.
Please ensure you check all official tourism websites for openings and availability before making final arrangements and bookings.
View from Penguin Island looking across the sandbar back to Shoalwater
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Penguin Island History

Penguin Island’s history dates back to the Aboriginal dream-time where stories describe the use of the coastal lagoons by the local Aboriginal people. 

Then whalers and seal hunters began to explore the region in the 1800’s and used the island for shelter and relaxation.

It wasn’t until 1918 that the first occupant (Seaforth McKenzie) lived on the island and invited holidaymakers to camp or stay in roughly furnished limestone caves.  Over the years it was used by a variety of organisations before the National Parks Authority (NPA) took over in 1966 and began leasing it to private companies who operated a small number of holiday shacks.

Then in 1987 the Department of Conservation and Land Management (renamed from NPA) negotiated for the lease to be returned.  The island is now a conservation park and only available for day-trippers.

Booking and Cost

Now you may see people walking the sandbar – but that option is really dangerous and people have died trying to cross due to the sudden changes in weather.  So the safest way is to catch the ferry.

Since Penguin Island was rezoned as a conservation park I have wanted to revisit the island.  So when Viator^ offered me the chance to book an excursion through them I jumped at the opportunity to visit Penguin Island.

There are several different tours you can book through Viator:

Or book these through the Penguin Island website:

  • Penguin Island ferry (includes the Discover Centre penguin feeding)
    • $27/adult
    • $20/child
  • Sea Lion Cruise on a glass-bottom boat
    • $42/adult
    • $33/child

Alternatively, you can paddle over to the Penguin Island for free on your own kayak or canoe but you cannot moor your own boat at the jetty.

Top Trip Tip: If you visit the island for free you are not entitled to watch the Penguin Feeding

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How to Get to Penguin Island

Penguin Island is open daily from the 15 September until the end of the WA Day long weekend in June.  It is then closed during the penguin breeding season and also closed Christmas Day.

It is an easy 50-minute drive to Shoalwater straight down the Kwinana Freeway exiting at Anketell Road, once you reach Rockingham then just follow the signs.  There is free parking at the jetty and plenty of free overflow parking at the bowling club 130m up the road.  You do not need to book for any of the ferries as they will continue until everybody has made their way.

If you don’t have a car you can take the train and bus.  Check out the TransPerth Journey Planner to organise your trip. Alternatively, book a day tour from Perth with Viator.

The Penguin Island ferry times from Shoalwater are on the hour from 9am to 3pm.  Return ferries leave the island at ten past the hour until 4:10pm – the last ferry service will continue until everybody is off the island. 

white ferry sailing across blue waters to Penguin Island
The Penguin Island ferry

Top Trip Tip: It is very dangerous to walk to Penguin Island across the sandbar due to sudden changes in weather and tides.

Penguin Island: Dolphin and Sea Lion Cruise

To begin our adventure dolphin tour we are given a safety demonstration and advised to follow instructions on when and where to stand to ensure the weight on the boat stays evenly distributed – they reinforce everyone will get a turn to see the wildlife.  As we head out into the water in the open-aired boat, protected from the sun by the blue canvas cover it quickly becomes cool with the breeze blowing off the water.  Everybody reaches for a jumper or sweater.

We are then reminded that ALL marine life are wild animals.  Rockingham Wild Encounters do not feed the sea life or keep them trapped within the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park.  I have to admit I’m a little bit dubious about our chances of seeing dolphins, as we barely saw one on a Mandurah Dolphin Cruise as the dolphins are – in the wild.  But very quickly my fears are alleviated.

Five dolphins (one of which is a calf) are spotted swimming around a stingray.  The boat slows to a crawl and we are all able to get up and watch.  The young female skipper does a fantastic job manoeuvring the boat for half an hour ensuring that both sides of the boat get alternating turns to watch whilst also being careful not to get to close to the dolphins as they swim so close by.

two dolphins swimming in the waters of Shoalwater Marine park
Dolphins

Bird Island

Our boat gently then chugs across the calm protected waters to a small rocky island that is covered in birds – strangely enough, it is called Bird Island.  If you take a set of binoculars you’ll get a better look at the Pied Cormorants, Sea Gulls, Crested Ferns and Bridled Ferns.  We even got to see a young White Bellied Sea Eagle.

Look close the birds are on top of Bird island

Seal Island

The next island is aptly named Seal Island and is home to the local sea lion colony.  Along the small white sandy beachfront facing the marine park sea lions (that look like large brown blobs from a distance) are lazing along the shore.  Barricade markers bob 10m from shore to advise the kayakers of the safe distance to view the sea lions from.  Of course, the sea lions are not aware of the rule to stay 10m away and some cheeky sea lions are playing in the water right next some of the kayakers.

Then before too long, it is time to make our way to Penguin Island so that we arrive in time for the 12:30pm Penguin Feeding show.

Top Trip Tip: Take a jumper/sweater it will get cool om the open-aired boat and include binoculars to get a better view of the animals

Penguin Feeding

Penguin Island is home to the largest colony of Little Penguins on the west coast of Australia.  As you walk about the island on the timber boardwalks you will see many nesting hatches and areas of rocky limestone caves barricaded off.  This is to ensure you don’t get too close to the wildlife.

For a guaranteed chance of seeing penguins, you need to pop into the half-hour penguin feeding show at the Penguin Island Discovery Centre. Show times are:

  • 10:30am
  • 12:30pm
  • 2:30pm

The penguins are just adorable as they all jump off the small steps, dive into the pool and swim about waiting for food.  There are currently 10 penguins in the clear sided pool enclosure and they are all rescue penguins.  As our presenter throws small fish to the penguins she tells us about a few of the individual penguins currently staying here. 

penguin about to jump into green pool for feeding
Penguin pool

“It’s a bit like a retirement village at the moment,” she comments, “Jerry (an 80+ female) is blind in one eye and lives with her partner, they have been together for years.” Penguins are monogamous but don’t seem to mourn the loss of a partner.  “Jerry had been with her previous partner for ten years when he died of old age.  The next morning staff came to check on how Jerry was coping and she had already moved in with her new partner and they are still together today.”

“Meanwhile another penguin demands to be hand-fed, refusing to take food thrown to him in the pool.  The staff have tried everything to get him to swim for his food.”

penguins on limestone rock after feeding time at Penguin Island
Penguins

The feeding sessions are probably the only way you will get to see the penguins.  The day we are there, there are plenty of young kids running and shouting on the boardwalks.  To get a glimpse of a penguin it needs to be quiet.  But you may be luckier than us.

Top Trip Tip: If you really want any chance of seeing penguins in the wild visit mid-week when there are less young children screaming.

Penguin Island Facts

What Else to See and Do

  • If you are a bird watcher there are hundreds of birds about.  They are mainly seagulls, pelicans, bridled tern and crested tern.
  • The west side of the island is good for surfing
  • You can bring your fishing rod and fish off the beach
  • Paddle about the marine park on a kayak or canoe
  • Walk the signposted boardwalk loop
  • Go for a swim
  • Enjoy a packed a picnic
Bridled tern bird on penguin island
Bridled Tern

Island Facilities

  • You need to bring your own food there is no café on Penguin Island
  • Near the Discovery Centre is a shaded grassed picnic area
  • You must take all your rubbish back with you to the mainland
  • There are timber boardwalks and signs to help you explore the island
  • The beach facing the mainland is very calm – great for kids and snorkelling
  • The beach facing out to sea is good for surfing
  • There are drinking water fountains
  • Unisex composting toilets
  • You cannot moor a boat at the jetty
  • Zone markers and other barricades are about the Shoalwater islands to ensure you keep your distance from the wildlife – please respect them
Penguin Island beach

Top Trip Tip: There are lots of stairs on the boardwalks as soon as you leave the main beach area.

Opening Times:

  • 15 September – day after WA Day (first Monday in June)
  • 8:30am – 4:30pm

Closed during winter for penguin breading the ticket office and café is still open 9am – 3pm.

Everything is closed on Christmas Day.

What to Bring to Penguin Island

Wear good walking shoes or sandals and include in your day trip packing list:

  • Hat
  • Sunscreen
  • Swimwear
  • Towel
  • Picnic lunch
    • There is no kiosk
    • There are no BBQs
  • Jumper/sweater – it gets cold on the adventure tour and the sea breeze can be cool on the island
  • Camera – to record all the wildlife
  • Binoculars – to see the wildlife

Top Trip Tip: If you have large bags or esky/cooler box they will be sent via the ferry whilst you take the adventure cruise (a hand luggage size bag should fit under your seat on the adventure boat)

Useful Websites:

If you would like more information on Penguin Island then check out these official tourism websites:

For ideas on more things to do in Perth and Western Australia read:

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DISCLOSURE:

Sally-Ann
Hi, I'm a Perth born and bred travel tips blogger/writer with 20+ years experience in airlines, hospitality and tourism. I love sharing my travel lessons learned to help you plan for your travel dream with my travel tips for trips. Please follow along to receive all my travel planning tips, packing lists and destination inspirations.
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