Phillip Island, near Melbourne, is famous for its resident penguin colony – but it is also a place steeped in rich Indigenous culture and history.
A visit to Phillip Island on our day tour from Melbourne is a great way to experience the wildlife and nature of this incredible location. But it is also important to acknowledge the history of the area prior to European settlement.
Like many locations, today there is not a lot of evidence of First Nations existence on the island. But the Yalluk Bulluk clan were regular visitors to the island in the summer months. They came by canoe and feasted on the marine and land animals that inhabited the area.
Read on to find out more about the Indigenous history of Phillip Island in Australia.
Indigenous Culture on Phillip Island
Phillip Island was part of the homelands of the Yalluk Bulluk clan of the Bunurong people for many thousands of years. The Bunurong people were members of the Kulin nation of Indigenous people. Their name for Phillip Island was “Millowl”.
In summertime the Yalluk Bulluk clan came to the island for food. There is evidence that shows they feasted on fish, shellfish, small marsupials like wallabies and short tailed shearwaters (mutton birds).
According to the Phillip Island Historical Society’s Christine Grayden, the Yallock Bullock people are believed to have travelled from the mainland to Phillip and French Islands in six-person canoes made from a curved piece of bark cut from a suitable tree. “The bark was too stiff to bend so it was plugged at the ends using clay,” Christine says.*
*Credit: Phillip Island and District Historical Society
Uncovering ancient history
There are several sites on Phillip Island where Indigenous artefacts were uncovered, giving a glimpse into the lives of the Yalluk Bulluk clan.
At one of their main camping sites at Forrest Caves charcoal, bone refuse, shells and other implements were unearthed.
A midden was discovered at Point Grant, and it is believed to date back around 2000 years. It contained various shells as well as the bones of penguins, wallaby, possum and small amounts of seal and fish.
Ochre was used as body decoration during ceremonies, and would have been available at several locations on Millowl and neighbouring Churchill Island. The first European explorers saw evidence of the existence of Indigenous people in the area, but did not often record coming into contact with them.
Before European explorers came and settled in the area, Millowl / Phillip Island was abundant with wildlife. This attracted European settlers and a thriving fur seal trade began in the early 1800s. George Bass was the first European to visit Western Port in 1798. He named it Western Port because it was west of Port Jackson. Sealers soon followed, harvesting the seals on the Bass Strait islands and Seal Rocks near the Nobbies.
The McHaffie brothers took out a lease of the island in 1842 to graze sheep. Other settlers followed when the island was opened up for lease. However conditions were very harsh on the island and many settlers left because of drought, failed crops and lack of water.
Evidence suggests that the Boonwurrung/Bunurong have been in Victoria for 40,000 years.
However, following European settlement, their dispossession occurred very quickly – within 40 years.
When European exploration began in Western Port, the Bunurong people suffered extensively through a plague of smallpox. It is believed to have halved the Victorian Indigenous population. They also suffered from entering a war with the neighbouring Braiakolung and Brataolung people.
In addition, sealers are believed to have taken “hundreds” Bunurong women, causing huge disruption to the daily lives of the clans and the ceremonial and intermarriage lives of all of the Kulin Nation people.
Their homelands and food sources were also massively disrupted by European settlement. From the 1830s, large amounts of black wattle bark was stripped by collectors and shipped out to be used in the tanning trade. For the Bunurong black wattle was a staple food, fibre and medicine tree. The decimation of the black wattle forests robbed these First Nations people of an important part of their daily lives.
Phillip Island today
Today we acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, the Bunurong / Boonwurrung people and pay respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
A visit to the island reveals the incredible nature and wildlife that was once a part of the lives of the Yalluk Bulluk clan. The Phillip Island Nature Parks organisation cares for over 1,805 hectares of beaches, bushland and wetland reserves. They focus on conservation and research to protect the wildlife and natural resources on the island.
Summer on the island now attracts many tourists and Melburnians to enjoy the seaside location and beaches. The nightly Penguin Parade is the most popular attraction. It draws thousands of tourists to view the colony of Little Penguins as they return from fishing at sea, to their burrows in the sand dunes.
The same penguins that were a food source for the Yalluk Bulluk clan over the last 40,000 years.
Our Phillip Island Day Tour
Join us to discover Phillip Island and more on our day trip from Melbourne.
- Visit the famous Brighton Beach boxes
- Take a guided tour of the award-winning Moonlit Sanctuary Wildlife Conservation Park
- Meet and feed a wide range of Australian animals including koalas, wombats, dingoes, and more
- Tour Point Grant for views of the Nobbies and Seal Rocks
- Visit the Penguin Parade to witness thousands of Little Penguins returning from the ocean to their burrows in the dunes
Frequently Asked Questions
Where is Phillip Island?
Phillip Island is just under 2 hours drive south-east from Melbourne. Access to the island is via a bridge from the small town of San Remo.
Which penguins live on Phillip Island?
Phillip Island is home to the world’s largest colony of Little Penguins. This species of penguin is blue and white in colour, and makes its home in a burrow in the sand dunes. They spend time at sea to hunt for fish and return to the island after sunset.
Written by: Leah Furey – Digital Content Coordinator @gowest.com.au