In Awe of the Albatross

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This is my third visit to the Royal Albatross Centre and the first time I’ve been able to be a part of a tour as my focus has been on the Little Blue Penguins.

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.

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Through the blind we could view three different birds almost ready to start their solitary lives at sea.

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.

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Against the backdrop of the ocean the gliding albatross looks like a boat in the water. The adult made several passes before dropping out of site and landing. It is hard to describe how thrilling it is to watch this bird soar.

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.

 

 

 

Little Blue Penguins Arrive Nightly

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!)

 

 

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