On a cruise from Dunedin, David Whitley is besieged by albatrosses and discovers that a sea lion resurgence is bad news for the Otago Peninsula’s yellow-eyed penguins.
In terms of lucking in, it doesn’t get much better than this. The sky is blue, the sun is warming to that perfect level before everything starts to get sweaty, and I am being stared at by an impressive – if slightly scary – bird.
The Buller’s albatross is one of the hundreds that have followed the fishing boat in. For the binocular-wielding peeping toms on the Monarch, this is perfect timing. The birds are after food, and if the fishing boat won’t provide it, then we might. Either way, they’re going to hang around and give us the evil eye until they get a conclusive answer either way.
“Jeez, you’re lucky today,” says Captain Nigel, as if we weren’t already aware of the fact. “There are some birds here that you’d normally have to go miles out to sea to find.”
Now I am the the first to admit that birdwatching is usually the preserve of lonely middle-aged men who have never kissed a girl due to their firm belief that socks and sandals is a tremendous idea.
But watching a southern royal albatross swoop on thermal currents around your boat, whilst legions of his cousins bob on the water, is liable to make you change your tune on such things.
The Otago Peninsula – the thin scrap of land that stretches for 20km or so around Dunedin’s harbour – is New Zealand’s secret wildlife hotspot. The Tairoa headland is the only place in the world (excluding some obscure sub-Antarctic islands) where certain species of albatross breed.
Then you look in the water and on the sandbanks, and you spot New Zealand fur seals lolling about and generally being smelly, or two sea lions having playfights in the water. The wildlife is thriving, and so close to a big city that it should be cowering away from.
Alas, this doesn’t apply to all the creatures of the Otago Peninsula. On the other side from the harbour is Penguin Place, which is essentially a sheep farm that has added penguin conservation as a second string to the bow. The concerned volunteers there are doing everything they can to create safe nesting sites for the world’s most endangered penguin – the yellow-eyed. But it’s not working – numbers of breeding pairs are decreasing rapidly, and chicks aren’t making it through to adulthood. This is partly due to unusually hot spring weather (which the little ones can’t cope with) and partly due to success of the sea lions – they keep dragging penguins off into the sea for lunch.
The set up at Penguin Place is incredible. So that visitors don’t disturb the penguins, an elaborate system of trenches has been set up. There are a few look-out posts buried amongst them, and they’re all put in position so that you can watch the penguins come in from the sea in the evening.
A similar thing happens at Philip Island near Melbourne in Australia, but this is done without the added bonus of having to stand on tiptoes behind hundreds of tour groups. There are just 10 of us as we see Howie emerge from the water. The poor chap isn’t very lucky in love – he’s constantly on the lookout for a wife, according to our guide.
He waddles along on his long walk home as we dash through the trenches to get closer. He then stops for a shake-down and a breather before heading on his way up the hill.
It’s ultra-cute, and my heart goes out to him. I want Howie to survive, I want him to meet the girl penguin of his dreams and I want lots of little Howies to grow to a ripe old age without being monstered by the enormous sea lion lying on the beach.
David was a guest of Monarch Cruises.
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