St Kilda is a suburb in the Australian city of Melbourne, Victoria, on the country’s south-eastern coast. It lies just a few kilometers from Melbourne city center, yet it is home to some very special residents. At St Kilda Pier and Breakwater, you can get a glimpse of one of the last things you’d expect to see in a city – penguins.
A colony of little penguins nests on the breakwater at the end of St Kilda Pier. The penguins have become a tourist attraction since they decided to move in here. St Kilda is the only place in the world where you can get great views of these charming animals in an urban environment.
Best Melbourne penguin viewing besides St Kilda:
IMPORTANT: Is St Kilda open for penguin viewing? Check our 2022/23 St Kilda update at the end of this article!
When to Watch the Little Penguins | Time of Day
You can view the little penguins, also called fairy penguins, every day at St Kilda after sunset when they return from the ocean. The next day they get back into the sea just before the sun rises again. You may spot them at any time during their activity, as the St Kilda Pier remains open for 24 hours.
To view the penguins, be there any time after sunset. Check sunset (and sunrise times) here: Sunrise/Sunset Melbourne
The Best Time | Best Months and Season
The best time to spot little penguins at St Kilda is during the chick-raising season, from August to March. There are fewer penguins at the pier in April and even smaller numbers in May, June, and July.
However, you can spot them at St Kilda throughout the year. The peak season with the highest number of penguins to spot is between August and March/April because the parents raise their chicks around this time.
Why Are the Little Penguins at St Kilda Pier?
The little penguins were first sighted on the breakwater just a few years after it was constructed in 1956, although there were no official records of them nesting there until 1974. It is thought that the first penguins to do so came from the large colony at Philip Island, which lies around 125 kilometers southeast of Melbourne.
St Kilda lies on the shores of Port Phillip Bay, and this region has an abundance of fish that little penguins like to eat. This is what is thought to have attracted them to the area in the first place. The breakwater itself, though not designed with penguins in mind, just happens to provide ideal nesting conditions for them. The rocks provide shelter for the penguins, and the breakwater is large enough for them to maintain a colony.
Penguin Seasons and Behavior
Moulting | At St Kilda
- 2-3 weeks between January and March
- Penguin Visibility: Medium
Their feathers are shed and replaced over a period of two to three weeks. Moulting occurs typically from January to March/April. During the moulting process, penguins sit on a rock and don’t head out to the ocean. The reason for staying ‘at home’ now: During moult, their feathers aren’t waterproof. Thus the penguins stay at St Kilda.
Feeding Up | At Sea
- A couple of weeks between May and July
- Penguin Visibility: Low
There are significantly fewer penguins at St Kilda from May until July, as most spend their time out at sea hunting for food. They will often sleep out on the water during this time, hence why fewer of them are seen at the breakwater.
Their diet consists primarily of fish. However, they will adapt to the availability of certain foods and will eat squid and crustaceans as well. Little penguins can eat 25% of their body weight in food in one day.
Egg Laying & Breeding | At St Kilda
- Typically between July and November
- Penguin Visibility: High from September/October to December
The breeding season at St Kilda generally takes place between July and November, though some penguins will breed as early as May. Most little penguins start to breed when they are between the ages of 1 and 3 years, and they produce one or two eggs in each clutch, which take around a month to hatch. At St Kilda, penguins can have up to three separate clutches per year.
Chick Raising | At St Kilda
- Typically between August and January/February
- Penguin Visibility: High from September/October to December
The peak time for penguin chicks at St Kilda is November. Both parents help to raise the chicks, and they will often alternate between incubating and feeding. In the early stages, parents will usually only spend a maximum of one day away from the nest. However, as the chicks get older, the parents sometimes leave them unattended while they go fishing.
Little penguin chicks grow rapidly, with most getting their adult plumage at four to five weeks old. Once chicks have developed all their adult feathers, they leave the nest and head out to see. This usually occurs at about eight weeks old.
Best Time of Day
The best time of day to visit St. Kilda Pier for penguin sightings is about half an hour after sunset. Keep in mind that it gets packed around sunset as everyone wants to observe these cute animals.
Your best chance is to arrive at St. Kilda pier sometime before sundown for a great spot, as it becomes jam-packed with visitors. Our two must-know visiting tips:
- Visit Twice: If your itinerary permits, you should visit St Kilda for the penguins twice: Once in the afternoon and again at dusk. Particularly in the summer months, it’s not unlikely to spot some penguins during the daytime.The huge advantage of visiting during the day: You can photograph the penguins easily. It gets much more challenging after sunset, as any light is not permitted. Nevertheless, you should watch the big groups of Little Penguins after dark at least once.
- Visit at Night / Before Sunrise: In case you like a quiet and undisturbed visit while watching the penguins, we recommend the following alternatives:Visit the pier around 11 p.m. in the night or two hours before sunrise. Especially before sunrise, you won’t see other visitors and can view the penguins in perfect solitude. Unless it’s a Friday or a Saturday, it’s typically peaceful after 11 p.m. The challenge is the darkness. It means you need a very good (expensive) low light camera and a fast lens for taking photos (using flash is not allowed, as it can hurt and scare the little penguins!)
One Day as a Penguin at St Kilda
Morning: The day starts early for a little penguin at St Kilda. Before the sun rises, the penguin ventures out from the shelter of his nest amongst the rocks and heads out to sea with his fellow penguins. His first aim – to find breakfast.
At Sea: Most of his time at sea during the day will be spent hunting for fish or squid, which he catches using his impressive swimming abilities. By diving beneath the waves, he uses his flippers to propel himself after prey, usually to depths of between 5 and 20 meters.
Food: If it’s breeding season, he’ll need to catch enough to feed himself and his growing chicks, and he might swim between 15 and 50 kilometers over the course of the day in search of food.
Return: Once his belly is full, he heads back to St Kilda at the end of the day, usually arriving at the breakwater just after sunset. After posing for a few photos, he returns to his nest to rest.
15 Little Penguin Facts
- The little penguin is a flightless marine bird, sometimes also known as the fairy penguin or blue penguin.
- Its scientific name is Eudyptula minor. Eudyptula stems from Greek and translates as ‘good little diver.’
- The little penguin is the smallest penguin species in the world, with adults growing to between 32 and 34 cm tall.
- Little penguins can be found on coastlines in southern Australia and New Zealand, though the colony living at St Kilda is one of the most famous.
- Both males and females have dark coats with white chests and stomachs, but males have slightly larger beaks.
- They are well adapted to life at sea, with salt glands above their eyes to get rid of excess salt from their diet and an oil gland at the base of their spines to provide a waterproof coating.
- Little penguins have between three and four times as many feathers like most birds of a similar size.
- Although the oldest little penguins can reach 25 years of age, most live to 6 or 7
- The colony at St Kilda breakwater is made up of around 1,400 little penguins, which nest in burrows amongst the rocks.
- In general, the penguins leave their nests before sunrise and return after sunset. However, they sometimes choose to sleep out at sea.
- Little penguins feed primarily on fish, but their diets vary depending on location. At St Kilda, anchovies and pilchards are their favorite foods.
- Little penguins can hold their breath for about 55 seconds, and they can dive to depths of up to 60 meters.
- The species is very vocal and produces more unique sounds than any other penguin species.
- One or two eggs are laid in each clutch during the breeding season, which begins in July and lasts until November.
- Both parents share the incubating and feeding responsibilities, and some pairs produce more than one clutch per season.
The Best Melbourne Tours
Check the three tours and activities above and read the reviews. One is an absolute must-do while you are in Melbourne
The St Kilda Pier itself is open and accessible, but the penguin viewing area is closed and under construction until early 2024. They are building a new platform for better viewing and protection of the penguins.
During that time, the old viewing platform is not accessible. That means it is currently not possible to spot the penguins up close. However, you can still see penguins from a distance, although it is more difficult. Check the best viewing times at the top of this article.
Currently, the best alternative to spot penguins up close nearby Melbourne is on Phillip Island (with pick-up from many Melbourne hotels, very comfortable):