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.
I have been intrigued with the wool shop Skeinz in Napier since 2011. When I was living in St Heliers and the Rena shipwreck happened the shop put a call out for penguin sweaters to help with the recovery. They were completely swamped by the response and the veterinarians only needed a few (their use is actually no longer in vogue). So Skeinz was clever and bought some stuffed little blue penguins and yellow-eyed penguins and sold the sweaters to raise money for penguin recovery and conservation.
The shop is in an industrial part of town because it is co-located with their wool mill and is essentially a factory outlet. Too far to walk and impractical to take a taxi so I rented a 3 speed cruiser and headed to the beach bike path. It was counter-intuitive to go via the Port, but the bike rental guy suggested that there would be less traffic and more scenic.
All good until I got to the transition from the Quays to the light industrial part of Napier called Onekawa. Suddenly I was navigating through roundabouts with logging trucks! I found a new gear fueled by terror! I got lost a couple of times and finally put away my paper map for Ms. Google. My 20 minute bike ride took twice as long, but it was worth it.
I had packed 2 patterns for a sweater and blanket for a friend’s baby due in December. (I learned the hard way to not depend on being able to find a pattern in a knitting language you can read. And then how much yarn to buy?) Karen helped me find the NZ equivalents of the right weight yarn. I really enjoyed looking at and feeling all the beautiful different wool yarns. Karen figured out how to ring it up so I didn’t have to pay GST and Skeinz ships overseas for free for orders over $100 NZ. I appreciated her assistance especially as there was a steady stream of customers.
I decided to cycle back to the City Centre in the most direct route. It was another blood pumping pedaling experience. When I stepped off my bike I felt very satisfied with my yarn haul and as if I’d wrestled ewe to ground, sheared and spun wool all while being chased by wolf! I went back to my hotel, showered and treated myself to a delicious dinner at Bistronomy.
One of my earliest penguin experiences was with the Pohatu Penguin Plunge in Akaroa. Several years ago I got up at the crack of dawn in Christchurch and drove out to Akaroa to go seakayaking and observe the penguins in Flea Bay on the Banks Peninsula. It was a wonderful experience, except for getting very, very seasick (but I’m easily prone).
I recently returned to the Banks Peninsula and was able to convince UK Sarah to go with me on the evening penguin safari at the Pohatu Marine Reserve. We reported to the Pohatu Penguin Plunge office in Akaroa and met the 3 other participants and our guide Ben. We climbed aboard the van and began the drive up the side of the old volcanic crater and down the other side to Flea Bay. We stopped along the way for some great views. Ben explained with his French accent the history of Akaroa from volcanic formation, to French settlers landing 4 days after Waitangi Treaty was signed, to the current efforts to conserve the penguin habitat at Flea Bay.
We stopped at the farmhouse to collect binoculars and to put on some camouflage raingear. We also fed bummer lambs a bottle and gave some pellets to the ewes. There is a bathroom here (and the last stop for the next several hours).
We headed the short distance toward Flea Bay—so named because early explorers noted that the penguins here were covered in fleas. Ben took his notebook along to make observations along the way. He reminded us the importance of watching the penguins from hides and not touching them or using flash photography.
It is tricky to time the penguin viewing—the start and finish of tours changes as spring turns to summer—because the penguins have adapted to the introduction of mammal predators by postponing their return to land until nightfall. When we began our walk only a few little blue penguins had returned, and as it got darker, we could see more and more penguins but less and less of them. And the ground is rough (you are walking along a hillside on a sheep and penguin trek not a proper path).
Almost right away we came to an artificial penguin nest provided by the Pohatu Penguin Plunge. If left to their own devices, the penguins would dig out nest in the dirt, but this requires a lot of energy and the colony is struggling to maintain its numbers. Providing the artificial boxes is a common practice approved by the Department of Conservation.
It is easy to tell the occupied boxes by the tell-tale poop outside the door. Each nest is numbered and the lids on these boxes are removable so Ben and others can check on them and track the number of chicks and help to educate us, the interested public. Ben showed us two different nests—one with a male and some chicks and one with a female and some chicks. The chicks were still small and difficult to see. Ben cannot touch the penguins so unless they shift it is difficult to know for certain. He replaced the lids and then added a rock to keep curious sheep out of the nests.
The little blue penguins in this colony are growing in numbers but only gradually. They experienced a 5% dip after the biggest Christchurch earthquake due probably due to stress. Their survival is threatened mainly by overfishing of their food supply and by stoats and other alien mammals harassing chicks and eggs. In the van, Ben explained the Department of Conservation approved poison program and then on our walk showed us a stoat trap. He recently started baiting the trap with mouse juice (pee from pet mice) and is finding more stoats than before. The most vulnerable period for the penguins is during the month or so when they molt and gain a new coat of feathers.
We walked to a set of hides where we could see the little blue penguins without disturbing them. I asked Ben how the chicks finally move out after weeks of being fed by their parents. He explained that the parents finally just stop going back to the nest and the young adults spend several days getting hungrier and hungrier until finally they clamber to the sea and begin fishing for themselves.
We walked to the furthest hide and received our reward: a lone yellow-eyed penguin. He was very handsome preening himself before going home. We watched him for some time. And while we watched we also saw a New Zealand fur seal go into the water from the nearby rocks. The seal swam just off shore and the returning little blue penguins avoided him as they returned from feeding all day.
In this area the white flippered penguins and the little blue penguins coexist and breed with one another. They are not considered separate subspecies. Only along these shores on the Banks Peninsula and Motunau Island will you find the white flippered penguin. I was pleased that with the help of binoculars I could soon tell the difference with the penguins we watched come ashore.
We returned slowly to the farmhouse and returned our gear. It was a lovely experience and the five of us from Scotland, Malaysia, England, USA and France were united in our admiration for the penguins.
The evening penguin safari costs $75NZ per adult and lasts 3 hours. Transportation is provided from Akaroa. No food or drink is provided by the tour company. Reservations are recommended. Uneven terrain may be a challenge for some, ask about accommodation if this is a concern. The Department of Conservation provides guidance for conserving the marine reserve but no funding. The Pohatu Penguin Plunge activities help to pay for the conservation of the habitat in Flea Bay. Best time for viewing is September through February.
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 Booking.com and make my hotel reservations, Kayak.com for auto reservations and then Trip Advisor for ideas for things to do and for reviews of hotels if I am undecided on Booking.com.
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.
In my pre-trip planning I experienced some frustrations in trying to line up penguin experiences. The Otago Peninsula in
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.