One of my earliest penguin experiences was with the Pohatu Penguin Plunge in Akaroa. Several years ago I got up at the crack of dawn in Christchurch and drove out to Akaroa to go seakayaking and observe the penguins in Flea Bay on the Banks Peninsula. It was a wonderful experience, except for getting very, very seasick (but I’m easily prone).
I recently returned to the Banks Peninsula and was able to convince UK Sarah to go with me on the evening penguin safari at the Pohatu Marine Reserve. We reported to the Pohatu Penguin Plunge office in Akaroa and met the 3 other participants and our guide Ben. We climbed aboard the van and began the drive up the side of the old volcanic crater and down the other side to Flea Bay. We stopped along the way for some great views. Ben explained with his French accent the history of Akaroa from volcanic formation, to French settlers landing 4 days after Waitangi Treaty was signed, to the current efforts to conserve the penguin habitat at Flea Bay.
We stopped at the farmhouse to collect binoculars and to put on some camouflage raingear. We also fed bummer lambs a bottle and gave some pellets to the ewes. There is a bathroom here (and the last stop for the next several hours).
We headed the short distance toward Flea Bay—so named because early explorers noted that the penguins here were covered in fleas. Ben took his notebook along to make observations along the way. He reminded us the importance of watching the penguins from hides and not touching them or using flash photography.
It is tricky to time the penguin viewing—the start and finish of tours changes as spring turns to summer—because the penguins have adapted to the introduction of mammal predators by postponing their return to land until nightfall. When we began our walk only a few little blue penguins had returned, and as it got darker, we could see more and more penguins but less and less of them. And the ground is rough (you are walking along a hillside on a sheep and penguin trek not a proper path).
Almost right away we came to an artificial penguin nest provided by the Pohatu Penguin Plunge. If left to their own devices, the penguins would dig out nest in the dirt, but this requires a lot of energy and the colony is struggling to maintain its numbers. Providing the artificial boxes is a common practice approved by the Department of Conservation.
It is easy to tell the occupied boxes by the tell-tale poop outside the door. Each nest is numbered and the lids on these boxes are removable so Ben and others can check on them and track the number of chicks and help to educate us, the interested public. Ben showed us two different nests—one with a male and some chicks and one with a female and some chicks. The chicks were still small and difficult to see. Ben cannot touch the penguins so unless they shift it is difficult to know for certain. He replaced the lids and then added a rock to keep curious sheep out of the nests.
The little blue penguins in this colony are growing in numbers but only gradually. They experienced a 5% dip after the biggest Christchurch earthquake due probably due to stress. Their survival is threatened mainly by overfishing of their food supply and by stoats and other alien mammals harassing chicks and eggs. In the van, Ben explained the Department of Conservation approved poison program and then on our walk showed us a stoat trap. He recently started baiting the trap with mouse juice (pee from pet mice) and is finding more stoats than before. The most vulnerable period for the penguins is during the month or so when they molt and gain a new coat of feathers.
We walked to a set of hides where we could see the little blue penguins without disturbing them. I asked Ben how the chicks finally move out after weeks of being fed by their parents. He explained that the parents finally just stop going back to the nest and the young adults spend several days getting hungrier and hungrier until finally they clamber to the sea and begin fishing for themselves.
We walked to the furthest hide and received our reward: a lone yellow-eyed penguin. He was very handsome preening himself before going home. We watched him for some time. And while we watched we also saw a New Zealand fur seal go into the water from the nearby rocks. The seal swam just off shore and the returning little blue penguins avoided him as they returned from feeding all day.
In this area the white flippered penguins and the little blue penguins coexist and breed with one another. They are not considered separate subspecies. Only along these shores on the Banks Peninsula and Motunau Island will you find the white flippered penguin. I was pleased that with the help of binoculars I could soon tell the difference with the penguins we watched come ashore.
We returned slowly to the farmhouse and returned our gear. It was a lovely experience and the five of us from Scotland, Malaysia, England, USA and France were united in our admiration for the penguins.
The evening penguin safari costs $75NZ per adult and lasts 3 hours. Transportation is provided from Akaroa. No food or drink is provided by the tour company. Reservations are recommended. Uneven terrain may be a challenge for some, ask about accommodation if this is a concern. The Department of Conservation provides guidance for conserving the marine reserve but no funding. The Pohatu Penguin Plunge activities help to pay for the conservation of the habitat in Flea Bay. Best time for viewing is September through February.