A worldwide army of little old ladies has found some far more appreciative recipients than grandchildren for their handknitted woollen jumpers.
Their loving efforts to help sick little penguins off the southern coast of Australia have given new meaning to the term penguin suit.
About 26,000 little, or fairy, penguins - which at up to 33cm tall are the world's smallest penguin species - make their home on and around Philip Island Nature Park, a major tourist attraction about 80km south-east of Melbourne.
Each evening at sunset, up to 2,000 penguins swim ashore at Summerland Beach and waddle up to their sand-dune burrows, delighting more than half a million visitors each year.
But every month, nature park volunteers find one or two penguins covered in oil.
And occasionally a major spill leaves hundreds in peril.
A German shipping company was last year fined more than $1 million for a 2003 spill at Philip Island that covered 12km of the coast, coating 24 penguins and killing three.
It was the latest of about half a dozen significant spills to have plagued the area in the last decade, including one in December 2001 that coated 360 penguins and another in 2000 that affected more than 200 and killed 12.
It's at these times that the grey army's knitting skills come in handy.
Usually the little penguins' dark blue waterproof feathers keep their skin absolutely dry and able to cope with the bitterly cold water of Bass Strait.
But the oil - as well as its removal process - interferes with their natural insulation, and the penguins, who swim straight to shore after encountering a spill, are usually cold, hungry and highly distressed when they are found, program coordinator Lyn Blom said.
Despite the volunteers' best efforts, until a few years ago casualties were high.
But that changed in 1999 when the nature park put out a call for knitters to turn their attention from snowflake sweaters and tea cozies to penguin jumpers.
The doll size, tight-fitting 100 per cent wool sweaters keep the penguins warm during the rehabilitation process and stop them preening and ingesting the poisonous oil, and lifts their survival rate to about 98 per cent.
Getting the jumpers on can be a struggle as the one kilogram animals are more feisty than they look, Ms Blom said.
"They look small and cute, but they have small person syndrome and they can be nasty," she said.
"They peck and they fight. You have to be pretty strong to survive in the ocean, they have to be pretty savvy and look after themselves and they do."
Distressed penguins might not care about the latest vogue colours, but that doesn't stop Ms Blom's troop of committed volunteers - mostly ladies in their "autumn years" with plenty of spare time - letting their creativity swim free.
The knitters continually push the fashion envelope with matching bride and groom outfits, AFL teams, and, from one elderly English woman, "the whole Manchester United soccer team".
Ornate jumpers with accessories the penguins might catch their bills on are used to dress stuffed penguin toys and are sold in the gift shop to raise money for the penguin rehabilitation centre.
Jumpers arrive in packages from all over the world, but the needles fly fastest in Canada and the United Kingdom, with United States and Norway also proficient pullover producers, Ms Blom said.
East Ballina local Theresa Robertson recently added about 15 of the "fancy" variety to Ms Blom's collection.
"I did a Balmain black and gold jumper, because I'm a Balmain rugby league fan," she said.
"I did all the clubs in Sydney, like the Penrith and North Sydney clubs. My husband told me the colours. They turned out really nice."
"I thought it would be nice to see all those penguins in all those little club jumpers, them running around in the football club colours."
The retiree and experienced knitter made one jumper a night sitting in front of the television. Each takes about four hours.
But the most prolific donor is a woman from Port Augusta, who has knitted 10 jumpers every fortnight - 260 a year - for the past three years, while members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Coffs Harbour recently passed the 1,600 mark.
And after the BBC put out a request for penguin jumpers, Ms Blom said she picked up three whole bails from customs.
"People really get into it," she said.
"Lots of lovely old ladies love it when people ask them what they are knitting, and they say `it's a jumper for a penguin'.
"Once the word goes out, you get plenty of helpers. The knitting needles started and they've never stopped."
Friday, April 21, 2006
From Tuxedos to Wool Sweaters.
From the Sydney Morning Herald: