Little Blue Penguins Arrive Nightly

Oamaru Little Blue in parking lot (always check under your car after dusk)

It has been several years since I watched the little blue penguins arrive home just after sunset to the Little Blue Penguin Colony in Oamaru, New Zealand. In my two previous experiences I delighted in seeing the penguins up close. On my second visit I paid extra to be in the VIP seats (recently added), and on this visit I decided to go with the basic rate. This was the first time I felt a little let down, and then I went into the parking lot and a little blue penguin charmed me completely and unexpectedly.

Doesn’t anyone read? There is a sign that says stay far from the NZ fur seals and yet they stood 2 feet away. Yes, there was a fence but it is also about habituating them to humans and sharing germs. True confessions though–I took this picture (without a flash) in spite of the sign.

I planned my trip to time with the Little Blue Penguins breeding season. They spend four to five months at sea eating, returning to their breeding colony for mating and rearing young. The penguins are beginning to return, and yet I braced for smaller numbers because last year many Little Blue Penguins starved due to the ocean food conditions.

Little Blue

Only 16 penguins came ashore in the first raft. About as many had spent the day on shore and waddled down past the viewing platforms to get a drink of water. The crowd waiting for an hour past sunset and then the cold made waiting longer intolerable. The numbers were low and the announcer sounded so bored. Plus they’ve added announcements in Mandarin–perfectly understandable given the makeup of the guests–but adds to the general sense of boredom.

If you do pay extra for the VIP seats, you get a better shore view and you get to see the nests as you walk back to the visitor centre from a boardwalk, but you have to stay in the cold longer.


The next day I scooted to the Otago Peninsula for more birding. The Royal Albatross Centre has penguin viewing in the evening and a colony of Little Blue Penguins.

I found this interesting book by Ken Stepnell (see above) and this lovely knitted Little Blue Penguin.

Back in Oamaru, a very accessible place to see penguins, I left worrying about the population numbers and without being able to see the penguins very closely or for very long.  And then I walked into the parking lot and saw a couple of penguins, with this one penguin hanging out longest and allowing me to film him (sans flash) doing his penguin thing. Delightful! (Listen at the end for the penguin calls!)



Dot’s Castle Beckons Near Oamaru, NZ

IMG_9613 (1)
Dot’s Castle, or Riverstone Castle, appears much smaller in this photo than it does in real life. It is impressive for size!

I was enjoying coffee with Ole and Karen and telling them of my travel plans. Karen shared a tv clip on Dot’s Castle and they both thought the food at the Riverstone Kitchen was really good. I decided to make it my destination for lunch. It took a lot longer to drive there than anticipated (and I don’t think I took any wrong turns). I arrived an hour before the dining room was closing, and I needed to eat and get underway to not miss the little blue penguins return to Oamaru.

IMG_9615 (1)I did a quick turn through Dot’s “best Bloody shop for miles.” It was an interesting collection of home design items, but all breakable, largish items that are like dead weight when you travel. She also offers an interesting plant selection–again not great for overseas travelers. After my week driving through South Island, I could understand the draw. The mostly small towns that dot the countryside don’t offer a lot of shopping options. Here in one stop you will likely find something you want or need or at least have fun trying.

I was pretty hungry by the time I sat down to order, and I’d been self-catering for a couple of days, so I was ready for a proper meal. I ordered the brussel sprout salad and fish and chips. I also discovered Hopt elderberry flavored soda. It was all so delish and satisfying. The Riverstone Kitchen was started in 2006 by Bevan and Monique Smith and focuses on local flavors and produce. Their dad (Neil) and mum (Dot) manage the dairy business that allows Dot to build the family castle from locally quarried stone.

I also enjoyed gazing out at the kitchen garden and castle in the distance. Children played and people walked dogs on a long stretch of lawn with hedgerows. I recommend making a stop at Riverstone part of your road trip on South Island’s Highway 1.

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.