Off the coast of New South Wales, David Whitley stumbles across a scheme to save the fairy penguins and rid their island habitat of an unwanted invader.


The ranger removes the brick from the top of the wooden box and lifts the lid. Huddled away in the corner is a sight of such undeniable cuteness that even the most emotionally-stunted meathead couldn’t resist crumbling into a gushing “awwwwwwwww!” The two little penguin chicks are essentially just big balls of fur with intensely lovable faces, and they are one of the main reasons that so much work is going into Montague Island.


The tiny 82-hectare speck off NSW’s south coast is home to Australia’s second-largest colony of fairy penguins (the largest being Philip Island in Victoria). If things had been left as they were, however, the penguins would have been pushed out. Kikuyu grass, an African import, was beginning to take over the island – including the penguin nesting sites. When left to grow rampant, it becomes dense and incredibly strong. For one of those adorable little furballs, to get caught up in the wrong patch can mean death. A long blade wrapped around the neck may as well be wire.


Thus the National Parks and Wildlife Service has embarked on a long term mission to replant native bush on the island, getting rid of most of the kikuyu and allowing the penguins to regain their habitat. Most of this work is funded by government grants, but an increasing amount is from tourists. And not only are they paying the money – some are mucking in with the job in hand too. While most visitors come to Montague on a half-day trip, there is also the opportunity to stay a night or two and help out with the conservation work.


This innovative marriage of holiday and environmental protection has seen the project win Tourism NSW’s eco-tourism award for the last two years. Phenomenal amounts of effort and paperwork have gone into making sure the footprint of visitors is as low as possible. There are no-go areas around important Aboriginal sites, a strict code of conduct has to be signed and solar panels and water tanks have been installed to make the operation largely self-sufficient.


The island is a half-hour’s boat ride from the wharf at Narooma. It’s a deceptively treacherous stretch, involving the navigation of high sandbar and decidedly choppy waters (even when the swells at the mild-to-moderate setting). Stand at the back of the boat without shelter and a drenching is guaranteed.


As it pulls into the jetty, a strong smell assaults the nose. It’s coming from the right – around 200 seals are perched on the rocks, some sniffing the air, some jumping in for a quick dip and others simply lolling about. The sheer concentration of them in one place makes for engrossing viewing, but it’s fair to say that they have the odd personal hygiene issue.


Climbing up the path to the lighthouse, it’s clear where the work has already been done. The island has been divided up into zones, and they are being tackled one year at a time. This leads to some wild discrepancies. One, for example, is covered in towering acacia, while in others kikuyu runs free or the land is barren, waiting for recently planted trees to grow. The task of transforming the island back to its natural state is not an enviable one – the grass has to undergo a fingertip search for penguin nests before it can be burned off. Even after that, it’s remarkably resilient and keeps growing back while rangers attempt to replant hectare after hectare.


This is where the overnight volunteers come in. There are some glamour tasks – such as helping PHD researchers monitor the penguins, but most of it is hard toil. That means digging out weeds, and fumbling in the dirt to plant. Those in charge are keen to point out that the volunteers are free to do nothing if they so wish, but in practice most throw themselves into it. To the NPWS, the assistance is the equivalent of employing an extra full time staff member for half a year.


It’s not all about the grunt, though. The overnighters stay in the surprisingly luxurious lighthouse cottage, which gives the air of a rather plush guesthouse, albeit one stranded on the top of wild moorland where ghosts are ten-a-penny. A selection of board games is scattered around; a bit of old-fashioned entertainment on stormy nights, isolated from the rest of the world. This is all part of what makes the experience so unique, of course – almost like a camping expedition in the middle of nowhere, but with a comfortable bed to sleep in and a decent kitchen.


There are also special privileges, such as seeing parts of the island not accessed by the day-trippers and getting to watch the penguins scuttle back to their nests at dusk from a much better, more intimate spot. And, when counts are being made, the temporary residents get to peek inside those nesting boxes. But the biggest privilege of all is being able to make a tangible difference. As Preston Cope, the NPWS’ area manager, explains: “People have said they want to be able to come back in five, ten years time and see the changes. You can’t put a price on the satisfaction of being able to say ‘I did that’.”

More photos here

 Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourism New South Wales (