Nature conservation

Native animals

Little penguin population in Sydney's North Harbour

Sydneysiders are lucky enough to have a population of little penguins living right on their doorstep. The population, in a secluded cove in Sydney's North Harbour, is the only breeding colony on the NSW mainland.

Manly Little Penguin Colony

A group of students from Beauty Point Public School recently lent a hand with some home renovations. 

How big is the North Harbour population?

The population of little penguins in Sydney's North Harbour once numbered in the hundreds. However, it has dramatically decreased to around 60 pairs of birds. The decline is mainly due to:

  • loss of suitable habitat
  • attacks by foxes and dogs
  • disturbance at nesting sites.

Numbers are now so low that the population is in danger of becoming extinct.

What is being done to protect the penguins?

Manly's little penguin colony has been listed as an endangered population under the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995, and areas of North Harbour have been declared 'critical habitat' for the population.

The recovery team

Shortly after the little penguin colony at Manly Point was listed as endangered, a Little Penguin Recovery Team was established. The main role of this team is to advise on the conservation of the endangered population of little penguins at Manly. The recovery team also assisted in the coordination, preparation and implementation of the recovery plan for this penguin population.

Recovery teams are made up of conservation experts, representatives from government agencies, and significant land managers. The Little Penguin Recovery Team consists of representatives from OEH, Manly Council, the Waterways Authority, NSW Fisheries, Manly Environment Centre, Taronga Zoo, the Southern Ocean Seabirds Study Association, and Charles Sturt University.

The monitoring program

OEH set up a monitoring program for the penguins in the summer of 1997-98. Once a week during the breeding season (from June to February), OEH:

  • carries out population counts
  • monitors penguin nesting habitat
  • microchips the birds.

This information is used to examine breeding success, adult survival, increases in the penguin population, and interactions with other populations.

In 2004, OEH changed the way it records the penguins. All new penguins are now fitted with a microchip (similar to the chip used to register cats and dogs). This is an improvement on the old banding system, as many penguins do not need to be handled to be identified. A scanner only needs to be passed over a penguin while it sits in its nest.

Status of the endangered population of little penguins Eudyptula minor at Manly (PDF, 958 KB) is a review of monitoring and the implementation of the recovery plan.

What else is OEH doing?

OEH has installed a number of nest boxes to encourage the penguins to breed. Six nest boxes have been in place since monitoring began, and the boxes continue to be very successful. Recently, a further 31 nest boxes were installed in Sydney Harbour National Park, to persuade young penguins searching for a new home to move to these more secure areas.

Since areas of North Harbour were declared critical habitat for the little penguins, restrictions have been placed on certain activities. On 1 July each year, OEH installs a number of seasonal buoys in the water around Sydney Harbour National Park to mark the aquatic boundary of the critical habitat area. These seasonal buoys are taken out when the breeding season ends on 28 February each year.

OEH routinely checks the critical habitat area and has trained other agencies involved in enforcement of critical habitat restrictions. NSW Maritime (Waterways) and NSW Fisheries regularly patrol the waters around Manly Cove, and Manly Council rangers patrol the critical habitat area on the land around Manly Point. During the busier times of the year, there are joint patrols by OEH and NSW Maritime officers, to enforce the critical habitat restrictions and to educate boaters and fishers.

The Manly community are our eyes and ears, as we can never be out there protecting the penguins 24 hours a day. The Manly penguin colony remained a secret with local residents for many years, but now this secret is out. The little penguin population can only recover with the active support of everyone who uses the harbour and foreshore areas. Your help is vital in protecting this colony.

A stable population

Monitoring has revealed that the population has remained stable at around 60 pairs for the last six years, despite concerns from the public that the population may still be declining.

The recovery team looks at the data collected in five-year cycles because penguin numbers, as with all seabirds, naturally fluctuate from year to year. Looking at a five-year average gives a much better indication of how the population is going.

Despite all the measures already in place, the Manly penguin colony is unlikely to rapidly increase in numbers. Any recovery within such a small population will be gradual and take many years. However, the recovery team is confident that the declines of the 1960s, 70s and 80s have been halted.

Breeding success

In trying to gauge the success or failure of Manly's little penguin colony, breeding success is a much better measure than the number of breeding pairs. The breeding success at Manly is actually higher than that of the well known Philip Island colony! In addition, the Manly penguins regularly 'double-brood' - that is, raise more than one set of chicks a season.

This is despite the fact that Sydney's waters are low in nutrients compared to the rich cold waters in the south. Penguins can only breed when they have reached a certain weight, so they need suitable food conditions. Sydney, with its warmer waters, is at the northern limit of the little penguins' range. The penguins rely on the Tasman Front - a regular movement of cold, nutrient-rich water up the south-east coast of Australia - to bring increased food supplies.

How you can help Sydney Harbour's little penguins

The recovery of Sydney's little penguin population can only succeed with the active support of everyone who uses the harbour and foreshore areas.

The Manly community as well as various user and interest groups have already shown great willingness to help save this population from extinction. But there is still more to be done. Please follow the rules in the little penguin critical habitat area, and consider doing the following things to help us to protect this endangered population:


Some gardening activities can be a real threat to penguins. Removing vegetation may expose burrows or disrupt penguin breeding. Common bushland weeds such as lantana actually provide very good penguin shelter.

Another problem is the dumping of vegetation and garden clippings. Dumping can bury existing burrows or prevent penguins from getting to their nests, as well as encouraging weeds to grow.

If you're planning to tidy or remove any vegetation near the foreshore, you are likely to need a licence. Please contact Manly Council or the OEH Little Penguin Recovery Plan Coordinator for advice.

Noise, light and other disturbance

Noise and light on the foreshore or on the water can delay penguins from returning to their burrows. The presence of people or light near burrows at night can make penguins abandon their nests altogether.

Please reduce the amount of noise and light around penguin areas, especially from dusk to dawn during the breeding season (1 July to 28 February). Do not use flash photography or shine torches at penguins or around their burrows, and try to avoid being around foreshore habitat at dusk and dawn during the breeding season.


Rubbish tangles, suffocates and injures little penguins. Fishing lines and hooks on the foreshore or in the water can strangle them or injure their feet and flippers. Oil and chemicals in the water make penguins sick.

Don't dump rubbish overboard from your boat, and if you bring anything to the foreshore, make sure you take it back when you leave. However, when removing large pieces of existing rubbish such as old doors, ask Manly Council or the OEH's Little Penguin Recovery Plan Coordinator first as it may be providing shelter for penguins.

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Page last updated: 24 December 2014