The parade of the little penguins
By Benjamin Tompkins
Six little penguins can’t decide to dive-
One falls in, and now there are five…
— “Penguin’s First Swim”
It’s friggin’ freezing out here. Seriously. I clearly remember my father telling me not to bother packing my down jacket because “Australian winters are not like Ohio because it’s near the coast. It’s a Mediterranean climate.”
Two things should have tipped me off that this was, in fact, total nonsense. First, my dad has never been to the Mediterranean. He hates Europe because he hates their food. Second, his general advice for dealing with a thermostat reading 58 degrees was “go put on a sweater.”
So now I’m sitting on a plank bench with about 500 other frozen Aussies and tourists on the shore of Phillip Island, one of the southernmost points on the entire continent, staring blankly at the black, frozen ocean in the direction of Antarctica. Waiting.
“Dad, when are they going to come? My snot is freezing.”
“They come when they come. Shut up and keep watching.”
“But when? It’s already been 10 minutes and nothing’s happening.”
“You probably scared them off because you’re talking. They’ll come eventually, they always do.”
“I can’t believe we paid $10 for this. They guy at the desk said if they don’t come by 10 they might not come at all.”
“You mean you can’t believe ‘I’ paid $10. And don’t worry about that 10 o’clock crap. They put that in the brochure 30 years ago to make the wait more exciting, and not once have they ever … see, here they come!”
Sure enough, right at the edge of the break, dozens of little black and white balls slowly began to materialize and work their way towards the shore. Clump after clump appeared out of the darkness, mustering their ranks in the foamy water at shore’s edge as if preparing for a grand assault to drive the tourists off the beachhead and away from the thick brush where the penguins keep their nests.
At once their charge halted. There they sat, at the precipice of the shore, nervously bobbing up and down with the surf.
“Dad, what are they waiting for?”
“I’m guessing they’re afraid.”
“Afraid of what? Us?”
“Probably – us, birds, predators – there’s lots of things. This little run across the beach is the most dangerous thing they’ll ever do. When they’re in the water they can dive and swim away, but when they’re on the beach there’s nowhere to hide and they don’t run very well. Easy pickings. They’ll wait until the last possible second and run out in a big group for safety.”
“Why not just get it over with? If one of them goes, the rest will follow, right? Besides, I’m cold, and the longer they take the longer we have to stay out here.”
“Psshhttt. I hate to break it to you kiddo, but those penguins don’t give a crap if you and everyone else out here freezes to death waiting for them to run up on the beach. You may care, the nature preserve may care, the camera crews may care, but if you think those penguins are going to risk their necks because we think my $10 and your frozen butt cheeks obligates them to act, you’re crazy. No penguin ever survived by running out of that ocean and making a target of themselves before they absolutely had to. Ever. They may be cowards, but they’re not stupid.”
“But they will have to go eventually or they won’t be able to feed their chicks. Don’t they care about their babies?”
“Sure they do. That’s why they came here in the first place. There will come a point where they will ‘have’ to make a break for it even if there’s an albatross. If that means we sit here until 10 p.m. tonight or 2013, then we will. One or two of them will probably get eaten, but most of them will safely make it past without being too conspicuous. That’s pretty much the game with penguins. We freeze, they wait, we freeze, they wait — it’s always safer for someone else to lead the charge than it is to be a hero and risk getting eaten just so some kid can get a cup of hot chocolate. Especially in an election year.”
All of a sudden, a cluster of penguins all bolted out of the water and ran across the sand.
“There they go, Dad!”
“See? I told you. And you can bet your frozen ass that if they make it safely the other 500 or so of them will go streaking across the beach after them.”
And sure enough, one by one, group by group, all the penguins ran across the sand and to the safety of the brush, and not a single one was eaten. Cold, snotty, and achy from two hours of sitting on a wooden bench, everyone pried themselves up and trudged across the boardwalk back to the Phillip Island visitor’s center for some heated air. We walked quietly, because all around us the penguins were cooing in their nests, warm, fat and happy.
“There’s got to be a better way to do this,” I muttered to my father.
“When you figure it out, let me know,” he grunted.
Benjamin Tompkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colo. He hates stupidity, and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of the issue. Reach Ben Tompkins at BenTompkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.