We spent the morning of scavenging for breakfast from our remaining leftovers and lounging in the living room before taking off for the Otago Peninsula. The drive itself was beautiful and took us along the northwest coastline of the peninsula, though it was a bit perilous with its windy, cliff-rounding road, placing us on the edge of the outgoing tide without guards preventing us from driving into the sea. Luckily, Doug did not drive us over the edge and we made it to the Royal Albatross Centre at the tip of the peninsula where we enjoyed some lunch from the cafe.
We had prearranged a 1:15 Ultimate Combo tour at the nearby Penguin Place, but had 30 minutes to kill beforehand and were hoping to see some albatrosses. Sadly, the only way to do so was to take a tour and we just didn’t have time for that. Instead we took full advantage of their restrooms and explored the free museum before heading on our way.
We arrived at Penguin Place 15 minutes early, retrieved our tickets, and explored the nearby gardens before our guide greeted us to start our tour. It began with an overview of the penguins we would be visiting, the Yellow Eyed Penguin, in the nearby theater before we were whisked to the bush on the other side of the hill with the help of a van. Unlike most penguins, the Yellow Eyed Penguins tend to keep to themselves rather than travel in large groups and thanks to their human neighbors the species is struggling to survive. With humans came non-native plant species which have made the beach bush a lot thicker than the penguins are used to navigating. In a lot of cases the bush has been cleared for sheep and other farm animals leaving penguins with a lack of shade with which to cool down while hiding their chicks. Because of this and other predators, only 700 of these penguins survive on the South Island. So, Penguin Place utilizes its land to build up the bush and help the penguins against man-made challenges by clearing paths to their nests, planting more native flora, and providing hospital care when needed.
During our walk through the bush, we were introduced to a number of the native plants. Our guide taught us about the Moa, a very large flightless bird that once inhabited New Zealand. According to the latest scientific thinking, these birds were responsible for the evolution of New Zealand’s windy, small-leafed trees. We learned about the Pepper plant which when eaten leaves a hot and spicy sting on your tongue (yes, we tried it). We were introduced to the Ngaoi Tree. It’s leaves were crushed to release a liquid which used by the Maori as insect repellent. We also were able to see two Fantail birds (appropriately named) zipping in and out of the bush, keeping tabs on their nearby chicks.
The climax of our tour, however, was most certainly witnessing a changeover of one of the Yellow Eyed Penguin families. As we were reaching level ground, our guide perked up his ears and said he could hear the penguins calling which meant we needed to hurry in order to witness a changeover (a changeover, by the way, is when one of the parent penguins returns from fishing at sea to replace the other parent watching the chicks, who then can start fishing). Off we went through a tunnel of flax plants to a nearby hide to witness the adorableness. There stood the two parents, each making calls at various times, and their two 7-week of chicks waddling around them. The chicks which were born at about the size of your thumb, now would stand as tall as their parents if they could. Instead, thanks to their bones and muscles being underdeveloped they adopt a more Hunchback of Notre Dame stance as they awkwardly follow their parents around. The mom’s fishing must have gone well because the parents chose to spend some time together swimming in the nearby pond while the chicks looked on from ashore. The chicks have not yet learned how to swim so they cannot join them, just yet, but the pond makes for a nice safe place to learn. We even got to witness one giving it a go! It was not graceful in the slightest. He slowly waddled to the edge of the pond and just fell over with his head underwater while he frantically flapped his wings (he did not get anywhere). As a comparison, his parents were floating around more like ducks with their heads out of the water and their tails periodically wiggling. The dad, Jim, came over to check on him and the chick eventually worked his way to shore, tripping on his way out, poor thing. Jim, satisfied that family time had come to an end, took off up the hill toward the ocean.
And we were off once again, attempting to catch Jim on his tour through the ocean. We walked at a quickened pace through the bush to where we were brought to the mouth of man-made trenches we would use to hide ourselves while we watched his march to sea. We made it just in time to see him approach a bridge and hear his pat pat pat pat on the wood overhead as we smiled with child-like glee. Then we continued on our way to a hide in a nearby hill to watch his waddle down the path, over a sand dune, and dive into the ocean. Being able to witness the process was exhilarating, possibly more so than a jet boat.
The tour continued back through the bush to the northern edge of the beach where we were able to see Blue Penguins, the world’s smallest penguins, nestled in their burrows on the hillside. By comparison, these penguins are doing quite well since they live in large groups and are less scared of people. As an example, we were able to be 2 ft away from one watching us from inside it’s hut. We also were able to see a group of teenage boy Fur Seals hanging out in their rock pools sunning themselves, practicing their fighting, and eating. Our guide informed us that these guys hang out here till they are about 6 or so and large enough to take on the nearby bull at the southern end of the beach that’s guarding 20 female seals so that he can find a mate. Because of this the teenagers varied drastically in weight. Some looked like tiny pups while others were quite large and likely almost on the verge of their bull fight.
The tour ended with us given the opportunity to plant a native tree to assist with the growth of the bush. Doug chose a Lancewood tree while Lynn opted for a nearby Ngaoi tree (suitable since she tends to have all the mosquitoes attracted to her). The gang chose similarly and we did the not so tough job of digging a small hole and putting the cutting in it, before covering it with dirt and taking a lot of pictures with the hopes that we would find it if we ever return.
The Yellow Eyed Penguin tour got us pumped about wildlife, so we had a quick ice cream break at the reception area before returning to the Royal Albatross Centre (when else can you see giant birds?). Luckily we were able to get on the 4:30 tour which began with an overview of the bird and a short video most of which we nodded off to (It wasn’t so much the video but we were tired!). The Royal Albatross is a massive bird with a wingspan of up to 3 meters, leading it to need to fold its wings when standing. They are found only around the southern oceans and live mostly at sea, only returning to land to reproduce. And, unknowingly, we were there while the parents were nesting so we were guaranteed to see at least 3 Royal Albatrosses sitting on their eggs. The group made its way up the hill past a large flock of nesting Red-Beaked Seagulls (annoying, but more endangered than the Royal Albatross) before arriving at the viewing center for the Royal Albatross. We immediately could see 4 sitting, and were told that the three nearest were on eggs but the furthest one was just hanging out. We waited and waited to see one in flight with everyone pointing out Black-Backed Gulls and being told from our guide that those were “definitely not Royal Albatrosses.” We would know when we see a Royal Albatross. “They are huge.” Thankfully, 10 minutes later, one started circling and the guide was certainly correct. It was huge especially in comparison the birds we had been seeing. Round and round it went in and out of view with us snapping pictures as much as we could hoping for a good one. During our downtime we also picked up life-sized and real-weighted replicas of the bird over its lifespan and, my goodness, they are heavy beings.
By the end we were satisfied with our wildlife viewing and returned to the town of Dunedin for some dinner in the octagon before setting off for home.
Daily Walking Mileage: 4.8
- Yellow Eyed Penguins are 95% monogamous, but our good friend, Jim, has had 19 chicks with 3 ladies. It seems he is pulling the weight for the entire population.
- Remember those lupins we loved so much? Well they were brought over by Europeans and now line the beach where the Yellow Eyed Penguins live. They are too dense for the penguins to move through and because of that are one of the non-native species Penguin Place is working on removing.
- Royal Albatrosses can travel at a top speed of 120 kmph. In one day they travel about 1000 km. This means that they are in air about 10 hours a day. Thankfully they don’t do a whole lot of work during that time and instead rely on the heavy winds to move them along.
- Dunedin was the oldest city in New Zealand and was once the largest.