Oamaru to Dunedin: More Penguins!

There are so many amazing small towns in New Zealand and Oamaru is one of them. I went for the penguins and enjoyed the other bits as bonus.

Oamaru is also the Steampunk Capital of NZ
Oamaru is also the Steampunk Capital of NZ

When you drive into town on Highway 1, there are signs to victorian Oamaru. (This part of town is also closest to the penguin colonies. ) These couple of blocks of historic buildings are home to a creative revival. There are clever shops, including a bookbindery and an old fashioned toy store,  and it is the home of the Steampunk Headquarters in the self-proclaimed Steampunk Capital of New Zealand.

First, as background, if like me you are not familiar with what it is all about, you can read the Wikipedia entry for Steampunk. Or you rely on the definition in the Oamaru brochure: “Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, and speculative fiction that came into prominence during the 1980s and early 1990s.”  Much clearer. Yeah, right.

This became a fun focus of conversation with shopkeepers as the townspeople are divided in their opinion of steampunk culture. One artist said that the arrival of Steampunk about 5 or so years ago created schisms in the art community. And then admitted that every art community has its schisms and politics.  Another person said they loved the creativity and openness of Steampunk and we talked about “creating from” the historic victorian with a futuristic “Dr. Who” flair.

It co-exists alongside the purist Victorian re-enactors. Some love the steampunk fashion and others are into the art. Either way, there is now a Steampunk New Zealand festival with a kick-off event called Oamaru On Fire.  The Steampunk HQ were closed on the day I tried to stop in (even though it says open 7 days a week).  The League of Victorian Imagineers hosts a Fashion Show and Ball in June each year.

My curiosity is mainly for penguins, so in addition to the blue penguin colony, I rose before sunrise one fine morning and drove out to Bushy Beach to the hide and waited over an hour for a Yelllow-eyed penguin to appear.

The view from the hide at Bushy Beach..
The view from the hide at Bushy Beach..

Even though a pair of binoculars would have been handy, I could still see the lone penguin emerge from the brush and saunter across the sand and rocks to the surf. He/she then dove into the water and swam around the shoreline.  The Yellow-eyed penguin is at least twice the size of a blue penguin. I left the hide and hiked the 50 yards to my car as by this time I was a popsicle. It was worth the cold and wait. And I have a new appreciation for field scientists who have to patiently endure the elements to count a species or observe behavior.  I also better understood how “sampling error” can happen as it takes a person of integrity to maintain an observation post in the cold and sleet day in and day out.

When I was a kid, sometimes my favorite part of watching late night fireworks or stargazing or walking through the neighborhood singing carols, was the hot chocolate at the end.  This time my reward was a delicious hot breakfast and flat white at the Bridge Cafe in Oamaru. Then a hot shower at Highfield Mews Motel before hitting the road to Dunedin.

I gave myself plenty of time for the drive back to Dunedin because I wanted to stop at the Moeraki Boulders and check out the Yellow-eyed penguin colony at the Kataki Lighthouse in Moeraki.  I do not know what I expected with the boulders. I laughed at what seemed the anti-climax.

God left his bocce ball set behind.
God left his bocce ball set behind.

It made for a good 15-20 minute stretch of the legs. I learned from a South Island native later in the week that there used to be more boulders but that people have removed some of them. Now they are protected. It is interesting how our attitudes toward conservation have changed, thankfully. The Kataki lighthouse is automated now. Before the keepers were relocated they heroically replanted the denuded hillsides to native bush and made a much more convivial place for the yellow eyed penguins to nest. They also build and equipped a very good hide. Whereas Bushy Beach was accessible, this is only reached by a very steep path and some other obstacles that are available only to fit people.  I did not expect to see any penguins as they make their appearance at sunrise and 1-2 hours before sunset.  They are also more solitary and so appear one or two at a time, not in rafts.  This would be a worthwhile spot to return to at the right time of day. The road to the lighthouse is gravel with just the steepest part paved in tarmac. Allow 20 minutes to drive out in one direction.

Books about Fluer's place are available for sale.

It was lunchtime and I noticed a place on my Moeraki tourist map that said, “Fleur’s Place” and boasted fresh caught fish and organic vegetables.  I found it easily and walked in and requested a table. Have you ever asked for a table in a practically empty restaurant and had the hostess look at you like you were crazy? Apparently (I did not know) I was in world-famous in NZ restaurant.  She deigned to find me a table without a booking. Lots more people did come in after me, but the restaurant never filled completely.  The fish and veg were delicious, and pricey.  I paid my bill and made a note to eat more cheaply at dinner.

I completed my drive to Dunedin fairly quickly and enjoyed this lovely University town with the heavy Scottish accent.

First things first, Penguins!

Do be careful, you are in penguin habitat.
Do be careful, you are in penguin habitat.

I flew 12.5 hours to Auckland, then 2 hours to Dunedin, then drove 2 hours to Oamaru so that I could throw my bags in my motel room and put on warm layers and head to the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony before sunset.  Oamaru has embraced its penguin colonies–both the little blue penguin and the yellow-eyed penguins. There is good signage from Highway 1 and through Victorian Oamaru.  I had to stop the Toyota Yaris rental car and take a picture of this sign on he road out to the blue penguin colony.  Of course it is cute and makes tourists like me smile, and it serves a serious purpose as the penguins nest all along the hillside and actually cross this road n the early morning and after sunset on their way to and from the sea.

The little blue penguin, also known in Australia as the fairy penguin, is the smallest penguin weighing in at only 1 kg. They begin their breeding season about this time of year. Scientists say they mate for life, except when they get “divorced”, or lose their mate to predators, and so on. Best to say that they do return to the same colony each year after several months feeding at sea and will seek out the mate from the previous year if they are still getting along.

This colony is growing. The partnership between the penguins and the nonprofit that offers the viewing and provides them with more and more nesting boxes is working. The penguins here often raise two sets of clutches or eggs a season. This year, for whatever reason, they got a late start and may only get one set of chicks raised before they moult in summer and go out to sea again.

nesting boxes in hummocks for penguins
nesting boxes in hummocks for penguins

The center is chock full of information and I read the exhibits before joining my guide for both the day tour and the night tour.  It is affordable–together it was $46 USD per person.  Your entrance fee supports the work the nonprofit is doing to continue to enhance the colony. You can also “adopt a penguin” for $150 NZD.

For the day tour we walked on the boardwalk through a “Hobbiton” for penguins with nesting boxes throughout a wide expanse of man-made hummocks.  Most appeared to be in use (with penguin poop on the doorstep).  I also was able to go into a special hut where penguins are nesting beneath. A special light that does not disturb the penguins but allows us to see them in their nests and specially built boxes so people can see into their nests, allows me to see several nesting pairs.  They also have a “penguin cam” on four nests outside of the hut.  A couple of these also had birds at home and I could watch on tablets inside the hut.

This was all very interesting and worthwhile, but I wanted to see more of the penguins interacting with their environment .  For this section, I have to rely on photos from Google images because no flash photography is allowed and by this time the light was fading beyond the capabilities of my humble camera.

When I first arrived I was one of the Center’s only visitors, but when we returned toward the time of the evening viewing a couple of dozen other people had also gathered.  People were from all over: China, New Zealand, Australia, and USA. It was a cold, cold evening and none of us were adequately prepared. Most had paid for the premium tickets, which afforded seating that is slightly more protected from the wind. Not that you ever sit, because as soon as the penguins begin to appear everyone is standing and craning to get the best possible view.

The profile of a very small duck in water
The profile of a very small duck in water

This particular colony approaches from the sea at a rocky, steep slope. We strained to try and see them in the water. You can see from this photo (aided by daylight) the blue penguin is not very noticeable in water. Their coloring is designed to fool predators. The blue topside helps them blend in water, and leopard seals that might be looking up at their white bottom side will not see them either.  It took our eyes a short while to adjust to the growing darkness and the special light that helps us see but is outside the penguins’ spectrum.  There was a big New Zealand fur seal (not a threat to penguins) who was sleeping very still on the rocks and it was fun to watch as one by one people recognized the big black rock as a seal.  The penguins had a similar reaction as they came ashore.  Some of them actually bumped into the seal.

Finally, as we were reaching popsicle stage, we began to see the penguins washed ashore by the rough surf, scrabble a toehold on the rocks and hop to higher ground.  A few feet from the surf’s edge they stopped to seemingly catch their breath, then continue hopping  up the rocks to higher ground.  Once there they clustered and preened their feathers and “cooled off” from their recent exertion.

When a group of 6 to 10 were ready to march on home, they scampered across the open area to a narrow chute and then on to the various nest boxes.  It reminded me of commuters at a train station.  (I cannot help but compare their behavior to human behavior as silly as it may seem at times.)

Adult blue penguin at night, similar to my viewing experience
Adult blue penguin at night, similar to my viewing experience

After an hour of watching the penguins do their nightly migration from sea to nests, I was really cold and really happy,  I smiled a lot during that hour!  They are just so darn cute. It is such a privilege to see them in something closer to their natural habitat.

We carefully left via a raised boardwalk back towards the visitor’s center.  We stopped whenever there were penguins moving near us and waited for them to pass.  This location is fully handicapped accessible, though that night we did not use the wheelchair ramp at the end because a blue penguin was preening himself on it.  We were able to stand just a few feet away and admire.

The helpful center guides gave me information about yellow eyed penguin colonies in Oamaru and along the coast and suggested viewing times.  I bought a beautiful new penguin book and a very handy merino scarf in the gift shop.  The center does not have a cafe; there is a restaurant a short walk away.

As I drove slowly away with the car heater on full blast, I saw a pair of blue penguins on the sea side of the road with a couple of people enthusiastically taking flash photos. I could see the wisdom in not allowing flash photography or videography.  Hopefully those penguin fans will leave them soon and allow the penguins to recover before crossing the road.

Fully satisfied, I drove back through the small town to the Highland Mews Motel to my very warm room and bed for a very satisfying nights sleep.  Before turning out the light I set my alarm for 6 a.m. to rise in time for a yellow eyed penguin experience.