Designing the Perfect New Zealand Adventure, Part I Penguins

These plywood penguins are helpful educational tools, but I want to see real penguins in the wild!

My adult kids and I will be celebrating my birthday and Thanksgiving in St Heliers, Auckland, New Zealand. I am so excited to share my favorite places in Auckland with them and tackling some adventures such as climbing Rangitoto. We will make a traditional American groaning feast for my Kiwi friends and then we will pursue our own adventures.

Every trip begins with booking tickets on Air New Zealand. For $50 one of their helpful advisors will help make more complicated reservations over the phone. Sometimes there is a savings if you are traveling to several places within New Zealand during your stay. This trip I made all of my reservations on line. Their easy to use site allows me to book my flight, pick my seat and let them know if I have special dietary requirements or need to bring an extra bag.

With my bookends of arrivals and departures (and notice that you lose a day on the way over from USA and live your last day twice on the way back), I begin to fill in the middle points. If I have confirmed dates in certain places I typically log on to and make my hotel reservations, for auto reservations and then Trip Advisor for ideas for things to do and for reviews of hotels if I am undecided on

I am going to South Island for a combination of penguin viewing and cycling.  Penguin viewing was my highest priority: I want to see both Fiordland penguins and yellow eyed penguins. And I want to visit Stewart Island (mainly for kiwi birds).  My challenge was figuring out the best places to see these and then create an itinerary that is reasonable and fulfilling.

New Zealand Penguins website is a life saver.  It lists several options for each type of penguin that I want to view.  I decided to visit Lake Moeraki in South Westland, Stewart Island in Southland, and Dunedin in Otago for my three penguin stops. I created a matrix for Dunedin since there are so many options. I have begun searching the various penguin guide websites and emailing for more details. I will soon have my tickets or reservations.

The complicating factor is the cycling. I really would like to cycle the Otago Central Rail Trail from Queenstown to Dunedin (the last bit by train). I had to establish the timeframe for that before I could solidify my penguin plans. And I had to make some adjustments to my plans. Originally I thought I’d drive from Queenstown to Lake Moeraki to Invercargill to Dunedin, but the cycling trips begin in Queenstown. Some quick changes to my itinerary and voila! I am able to do everything I want to do.

It is a very full schedule, and not everyone would find four days of cycling the “relaxing” bit. I am super charged about it.

Rafts of Blue Penguins

In my pre-trip planning I experienced some frustrations in trying to line up penguin experiences. The Otago Peninsula in

Royal Albatross Centre at end of Otago Peninsula
Royal Albatross Centre at end of Otago Peninsula

Dunedin is one of the few places in New Zealand guide books where penguin experiences are specifically called out, so I was a bit mystified that it was such a challenge to arrange. I was not able to arrange a yellow-eyed penguin tour so I signed up for Blue Penguins Pukekura at the Royal Albatross Centre.

The drive on the Otago Peninsula Low Road was an adventure. Even though I had a firm grip on the wheel part of me had to smile at the “at your own risk” road. Not a great place to be in a storm unless you have a life jacket in the car. Also, stay sober! Driving all the way to the end to the Royal Albatross Centre is worth it.  The Centre is interesting and I recommend arriving an hour before sunset so you can watch the albatross arrive to their roosting area for the night. (There is also a cafe to grab a bite to eat or hot drink).

This particular evening the blue penguin viewing started at 6:30 p.m.  Thumbs up for the jackets provided as an extra barrier against the cold and for the Maori welcome.  The stairs are also well lit to the platform at the bottom of a gentle beach along the harbor.  Unfortunately, this is not a wheelchair accessible experience.

Landing beach for little blue penguin rafts
Landing beach for little blue penguin rafts

The sandy beach was easily visible from the viewing platform and we only had to wait a short while before the first raft of penguins arrived.  Because of the gentle approach, the penguins could assemble in the bay and arrived on shore together. About 100 yards off shore we could see their dark shape and the thrashing water signal their approach. Nothing however prepared me for their burst on to shore and sprint to the grassy area about 15 yards beyond the surf.  It was so charming and funny. They are adorable. Again flash photography is prohibited.

Everyone was in a super good mood by the time we started the steep climb up the hill. We handed our jackets over and began the “fun” drive back the coast road. It was actually not as worrisome as I expected.

The next day I serendipitously discovered the office of the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust on Lower Stuart Street.  They are celebrating their 25th anniversary of restoring habitat, funding research, and promoting penguin appreciation and education.  I have seen other communities celebrate an individual (Rio Vista humpback whale Humphrey, Dingle dolphin, and of course the Loch Ness monster!), yet I found it sweet how Dunedin and the Otago region embraced their special stewardship of the yellow-eyed penguin.

Yellow-eyed penguins celebrated in Dunedin
Yellow-eyed penguins celebrated in Dunedin

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.