I saw my first Yellow-eyed penguin from the hide at Bushy Point, but I was at least a hundred meters above the beach and even with binoculars it was hard to appreciate their unique size and markings. Several times I tried going on a Penguin Place tour and couldn’t fit it in with the Little Blue Penguin experience at the Royal Albatross Centre. I was determined to make it work this time!
Located on a private sheep farm on the Dunedin peninsula, Penguin Place is dedicated to the conservation and welfare of Yellow-eyed penguins/hoiho. Their efforts to restablish habitat and educate the public also benefits Little Blue penguins. I went in the winter months (April-September) so they only offer one tour a day at 3:45 p.m. In the summer months (October-March) there are 90 minute tours running from 10:15 a.m. to 6:16 p.m.
One advantage of going in the winter is the tour group is more likely to be small. There were just a half dozen of us as we bumped in the bus, through the sheep ranch, and toward the trails that lead to the network of hides.
We had plenty of time to ask our questions as we waited in the hide and looked out at the beach waiting for a Yellow-eyed penguin to return. A large sea lion was hanging out on the beach probably sending “stay away” vibes to penguins. We were not disappointed though. There were two Yellow-eyed penguins who stayed on land all day. One was just a few feet from the hide and another was some distance below the hide but away from the beach and visible to us. We also saw several single and pairs of Little Blue Penguins in their wooden hutches along the trail.
All of the money from the penguin tourism goes back into rehabilitating penguins in the hospital and conserving the breeding grounds. In spite of the extensive efforts by people and the NZ Department of Conservation, the numbers are shrinking. When I first took an interest in hoiho there were 400-600 breeding pairs on the NZ mainland, and now there are just 266 breeding pairs. There is also a sex imbalance with three males for every female. It is hard to state with certainty what is causing the decline but it is likely warming oceans and changing food supply. Participating in this guided tour is a small way to do your part for the species. And we need to all make changes to address the climate crisis.
Before I visited the Royal Albatross Centre I thought of the Albatross as a super big gull. They are so much more AWE-some. They are super big with wings that fold twice. They spend most of the lives flying at sea. The young take a year to mature and when they are ready to attempt flight they just step off a cliff without any training or practice! These are just a few of the wonderful albatross facts I learned on the tour.
Our guide was very knowledgeable and answered all of our questions. She said that if we were lucky we would see an adult coming back to feed their chick.
The Centre does a marvelous job of educating people about the unique grandeur of the Royal Albatross. Both the Centre and the bird deserve the adjective “Royal.” They provide many different ways to communicate the size and majesty of this bird. You can see the folding 3 meter wing span in the skeleton, and the stuffed albatross are weighted to approximate an actual bird’s likely weight. One of my favorite fun facts is the full grown chick actually is too heavy to fly, so the parent begins to force them to walk to dinner to get them to lose some of the baby fat.
There are a variety of tours, with the most basic hour long tour at the top of an hour, starting for $52NZ per adult. It is a steep climb up to the glassed in viewing platform or hide. Along the way there are a variety of gulls nesting on the hillside and sheep mowing the grass. I did see people with some mobility challenges making the trek and taking their time. The visitor centre also has a gift shop and cafe. There is ample parking but it is located at the very end of the peninsula, so allow 45 minutes to an hour to get there on the narrow, windy road with traffic stops for roadwork. It is worth the effort.
As I planned my day in Dunedin I read about a restaurant and garden Glenfollach. I went online and made a reservation without realizing that it was Father’s Day Sunday in New Zealand. I requested a booking before noon so I could enjoy my lunch and drive on to the end of the peninsula for the Royal Albatross Centre. When I first arrived there were only a few people already enjoying coffee and the view. By the time I left the restaurant and deck were full of families celebrating fathers.
Because of Fathers Day there was also a 3 course meal option. It sounded super so I ordered it, along with a ginger ale and tonic and enjoyed the attention to details in the venue decor and table setting.
To say my meal was delicious is inadequate. Every course was very interesting and combined flavors and textures beautifully. I was so thankful to enjoy another great New Zealand meal.
There is a beautiful garden to enjoy if you do have a long wait for a table. Booking ahead is advised. Glenfollach isn’t more than 15 minutes into the Peninsula, so accessible from downtown Dunedin.