Penguin Hunt, Lagoon Pier, Port Melbourne

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The line of brown sludge on the horizon separated the grey of the Bay from the grey of the sky. Was this the smoke from the open cut fire at Morwell sent up to us on the humid easterlies we’ve had for the last day or so?

The sea was flat and almost uniformly grey. There were some shimmering lighter strips out in the distance. By contrast, the sky was full of things happening. A deep solid grey mass to the east was separated diagonally from the tumble of clouds directly beside it. Bands of showers slanted across the horizon in the distance and behind me loomed a deep violet cloud over the city. Above, was a confusion of tumbling but unthreatening shapes in a variety of light greys.

The water was so still as I waded out, that there seemed to be no surface and I could see directly through to the bottom. Ah, there are the stripey underpants belonging to the strip of waist elastic I’d picked up earlier on the beach to put in the bin. They lay on the bottom like a sort of solid jelly fish or confused manta ray.

A flock of seagulls floated crisply ahead of me as I continued wading out, still thigh deep only. Suddenly, a blocky, fishy shape surged just under the surface towards me. It veered to my left and I saw a beak and feathers. It was a bird. It looked like a penguin but brown! The head surfaced a couple of metres away nearer the shore, bobbed and dived again, only to resurface within a few seconds. The seagulls paddled around me to keep up with it, encircling it very closely.

I realized that they were very intent and focused on hunting and harrying this bedraggled bird. A couple of seagulls would lift from the water to spy on it and then settle in front of the continuously diving and surfacing penguin. The remaining flock then paddled up and surrounded it in front and behind. I felt totally helpless as I stood in the water and watched the agitated penguin and the very calm sea gulls zigzag their way around me.

Then the penguin changed direction and starting heading out to sea. It seemed that the gulls lost a bit of interest at this stage and didn’t pursue so intently. But the penguin made a right hand turn and started moving towards Lagoon Pier. This enlivened the gulls and they fell into pursuit again. The advance party settled on the railings, the flock crowded up and…it all slowed down. The gulls gradually dispersed and the water was empty. What a relief to see nothing living between me and the horizon.

I was disturbed and powerless to be a witness of this drama. I thought the penguin looked panicky as it rapidly surfaced, bobbed its head around and dived again for such a brief time. Its plumage was a brownish and uneven, not sleek like an adult, and I felt for it in its isolation from the St Kilda colony. The gulls were unhurried and working as a group to tire their prey and perhaps force it onto the beach.

It was a relief then to walk out to the deep water, duck my head under and float peacefully in the centre of the gathering weather.

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