Where can I see the Manly little penguins and how are they doing?
The little penguin colony at Sydney’s North Harbour was a local secret for many years with residents reporting its existence from around the 1940s and '50s. They breed in more than ten island sites in NSW, including Lion Island in Pittwater and Five Islands off Port Kembla.
The population numbering approximately 60–70 breeding pairs lives in secluded coves and is the only remaining breeding colony on the NSW mainland. Visit the What is being done to help Manly's little penguins? page for the latest monitoring info.
Little penguins forage for food throughout Sydney Harbour and along the Sydney coast, with frequent sightings around Bondi, Botany Bay, Mosman, Narrabeen and Vaucluse. Some of our penguins have even travelled as far as Victoria.
Little penguins come back to Manly each year to breed between May and February. They usually return to their burrows at sunset, when the darkness hides them from predators.
Unlike Phillip Island, near Melbourne, the little penguin population at Manly is small, so it’s not always possible to see them in their natural habitat.
If you do see a little penguin, please don’t use flash photography as it disorientates them.
If you can’t see penguins in the wild, visit some at Manly SEALIFE Sanctuary, SEALIFE Sydney Aquarium and Taronga Zoo.
If you see one of the NPWS Volunteer Penguin Wardens, please have a chat to them about what the penguins are up to.
Little penguins have a distinctive call, as captured in this audio recording by Tony Garman.
Where do Manly little penguins nest?
The little penguins found at Manly are mostly breeding birds found within areas of North Harbour that have been declared critical habitat for the population. Penguins are also located outside the critical habitat – for example, at Manly Wharf. Little penguins nest in rock crevices or burrow in sand or soft soil and they also use artificial nest boxes.
The nests are lined with leaves, grass, twigs, bark and marine debris such as plastic bags. Little penguins may have several paths leading to their nest site. This allows for safe access and egress. They are strong swimmers but as flightless birds they have to negotiate steps to access their burrows.
Little penguin chicks leaving their burrow. Photo: N Carlile/OEH.
Penguins only breed when they’ve reached a certain weight, so getting enough to eat is crucial. The birds at Manly are likely to be well fed due to the relatively rich feeding environment offered by Sydney Harbour.
Visit the little penguin page to find out more about what little penguins eat and what their habits are.
Little penguin timeline
Each year between May and February adult little penguins return to exactly the same location in Manly to nest, breed and raise their young, as well as for moulting and re-growing waterproof feathers for next season. They return to sea for a few weeks before beginning the cycle all over again.
Parenting is a two-penguin job
Little penguin chicks with adult. Photo: N Carlile/OEH.
The female lays two eggs, three days apart. Both parents keep the eggs warm until the chicks hatch together around 36 days later. Manly penguins regularly 'double-brood', that is, raise more than one set of chicks a season.
For two months chicks stay in the nest and:
- open their eyes within a week
- replace their first feathers with a new chocolate-coloured coat that their parents help make waterproof by removing the downy feathers and stimulating oil glands.
Both parents take turns guarding their chicks and getting fish (from about one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset) to feed their hungry young.
After 6–7 weeks, the chicks are ready to leave the nest, and their parents make sure the little ones' coats are waterproof.
After the chicks leave, mum and dad return to sea to fatten up and store the energy needed for the moulting process. Then they take up to 17 days to moult and get their waterproof coats back. They are very vulnerable to predators during this period.
The chicks will spend the next 2–3 years at sea before coming back to shore to nest. It is estimated that around 30 per cent of these chicks will return to the same spot in Manly to start families of their own.
How big is the Manly population?
In the past there were hundreds of little penguins in Sydney’s North Harbour. During the 1990s numbers were thought to be as low as 35 breeding pairs.
Little penguin at Manly Wharf. Photo: David Jenkins.
However, following a concentrated effort by National Parks and Wildlife Service, Office of Environment and Heritage, Manly Council, Manly Environment Centre, Taronga Zoo and the community, there are now around 60–70 breeding pairs.
Unfortunately, these penguins are still at risk of injury or death from fox and dog attacks, boat strikes, fishing lines, hooks and rubbish and deliberate destruction of their nests.
Find out what you can do to help little penguins.
What would you like to do next?
Page last updated: 22 April 2016