From Meredith Vieira, TODAY anchor
We made it to Melbourne, Australia after some 22 hours of flying. Lots of water and sleep aboard Qantas, one of the nicest airlines I've ever experienced. There's something about a pilot with an Australian accent that instills confidence in even a white-knuckled flyer like myself.
We took off Thursday night from JFK and landed in Australia Saturday morning. Then after a quick pit stop at the hotel we all loaded into a van and drove an hour and a half to Prince Philip Island. Among other things, it is home to the Little Penguin sanctuary. The Little Penguin is so called because he is a little guy, smaller than the black and white penguins we all know. Those tuxedoed characters come from Antarctica, whereas the Little Penguins are warm water birds. Every night for thousands of years they have washed onto the beach here and waddled up to their burrows, often dodging foxes and birds of prey. The sanctuary has done much to keep most of the predators away, and since the 1920's visitors have flocked here to watch the nightly penguin ritual. I was told the birds were very timid and might hang by the water's edge if startled. And so I sat as still as possible along with one of the rangers who spoke to me in a whisper. He told me most of the penguins heading in were stuffed with fish they'd been eating all day along the Australian coastline. Upon arrival they would make their way to their burrows where their mates and chicks would be waiting. The penguin parent would regurgitate (sorry, nature isn't always pretty) some of its food for the chicks, and then take over babysitting while the other adult penguin prepared to head out by the next dawn. He also explained why these penguins had a blue back instead of a black one -- the better to blend into the water so no predators could spot them during their long swims.
All of a sudden I gasped in amazement as a raft of penguins (meaning a group) came into sight. There they were, dozens of them at a time, waddling up the beach while looking from side to side. To think they have done this for centuries, always landing at the same spot. As we sat in silence they moved just past us. It was hard not to laugh, especially at the ones so stuffed with fish they kept toppling onto their bellies. But beyond their comical demeanor lies an amazing creature. Only 20 percent survive the first year of life because their parents often leave them to fend for themselves the first time they venture into the sea. The scientists have put tracking devises on the birds and are monitoring their behavior to see if they are being affected by climate change. And because these birds go out to sea every day and then return, they are an amazing resource for also monitoring the aquatic eco system.
Australia is extremely concerned about its natural assets and the affect of climate change on them. Already some 15 percent of the Great Barrier reef has succumbed to coral bleaching because of warmer water. Just this weekend, thousands took to the streets here demanding urgent climate action now. And yet, Australia is one of the top emitters of greenhouse gases in the world because of its coal production.
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