New Zealand South Island Penguins

2. Little Blue
Penguins on the Otago Peninsula


Albatross Overhead

We hurtled through Dunedin in the late day traffic, observing
Otago University and the famously decorative railway station from the
car as we made our way onto the
Otago Peninsula. Two of us got to enjoy gorgeous city views back across
the long thin
bay from the narrow, winding bayside Portobello Road, while our driver
maintained a tense concentration on the road. Breezing past the Larnach
off and through tiny Portsmouth, we found our lodging, the Bus
We’d reserved the quirkiest “room” in the
little hostel, a converted school bus RV used by the owners for travels
in the off season. The owner Phil gave us the lowdown on the
facilities, then an extended briefing on the wildlife viewing and
sights of the peninsula. Right now was the best time to see the
albatross and we wouldn’t need to pay as they would fly right
over the parking lot at the Royal
Albatross Centre
. Then, the Blue
Penguins would be coming in at dusk at a free, ranger-staffed viewing
area directly
below the
Albatross Centre- we should be there around 9 pm. The next day, we
could view Hooker’s sea lions and possibly Yellow-eyed
the eastern side of the peninsula, while enjoying the drive out on the
lovely Highcliff Road.

All sorted, we quickly put luggage in the bus, then headed off to see
the big seagulls. It was approaching dinner time, but we figured we
could go back and cook before the penguins arrived.
From the parking lot, we followed a cliff trail that took us to a
perfect viewing area. The cliffs were jammed with nesting spotted
shags, and we could watch fur seals with tiny pups down on the rocks.
Overhead careened dozens of screeching gulls, riding the winds that hit
the cliffs. Before we could wonder where to see the albatross, a huge
bird soared around the far cliff and toward our platform. It glided out
of view behind a nearer point for a moment, then suddenly popped up and
cruised just meters above our heads. We’d seen
stuffed Albatross in museums hanging about the height this one flew
over and they were impressively large but still quite gull-like. This
experience somehow was very different. F said it was like a
pterodactyl though you could also have said an eagle. We ended up
watching for a long while until it was too late to go back for dinner,
so we settled for a picnic dinner of salami
sandwiches and the last of our Tasman beer from the cooler.

A bit before nine, we walked down the hill to the penguin nesting area
to stake out prime viewing spots for the estimated 9:30 arrival. As the
crowd thickened around us, a light drizzle started to fall.
Fortunately, the dusk viewing at this site is not well known and not
mentioned in the Lonely Planet so the group maxed out at under 50
people. When 9:30
came and went, the crowd became restless and some people even left,
defeated by the rain. We passed the time watching seals in the water as
the sky dimmed and the city lights came up across the bay. Then at
around 10, as we watched a big transport ship edge out of the harbor,
two little penguins flopped onto shore. And when we say little we mean
the smallest in the world. Full grown Blues, or Fairy Penguins as they
are known is Australia, are just 10 inches (30 cm) tall and weigh
around 2 pounds (1kg). These two chattered to each other
and looked around nervously before retreating back into the tide.

Blue Penguin

Little Blue Penguins at Dusk

Just moments later, we spotted a disturbance near the shore that could have
been a
school of fish jumping. The clump steadily approached shore and then a
dozen or more penguins tumbled ashore in an absolute racket of bird
conversation. Unlike the prior landing party,
this group meant business and marched directly toward our cliff
overlook. As fast as penguins can waddle, they made their way across
the sand and began hopping up rocks into a pathway recessed into the
dunes right in
front of our roped enclosure. Their trail curved into view
just a
few meters to
our left, and we expected them to pop right out of the dunes.
While not terribly shy, apparently this opening was too exposed, so
most detoured under a fence and then made their way up the hill further
along. A few, though, waited chattering at the trailhead, and finally
inched their way into view. Even with powder blue backs and white
bellies, they had the same comical arms-too long-legs-too-short
character of the tuxedoed varieties. They began a series of preening
still periodically squeaking and squawking to their neighbors.

Before they had finished, another school of birds burst onto the beach
and repeated the routine. At this point, dusk was firmly descending
into full night, so between the cold and the drizzle and the dark, more
and more viewers were abandoning. We were still glued to the spot and
watched several more smaller and larger groups make their way to land.
Some took the long route at the top, while others were more comfortable
with the near opening. At one point a pair headed directly at us,
stopping just a foot or two from our roped enclosure. The people
nearest stayed stock-still to observe, but it seemed quite obvious that
they were blocking the road these two wanted to take home. By the time
someone whispered “They’re trying to get
through” the
little birds were turning into the dunes to find another route.

Eventually, we could barely see anything and had to head out. This was
easier said than done, because the car was parked above the nest-filled
hillside. We inched our way up the hill, encountering traveling
penguins at every turn. We’d been warned that they were
disturbed by lights, but we didn’t want to squash anyone or
our necks, so we made slow progress back to the road. Once there we
realized that penguins were still crossing our path, the road we would
need to drive back from the car park. Distressing or not, we decided
car lights were essential to a safe exit, and we managed to get past
the area with no casualties. We returned to our bus satisfied that we
had made the right decision scrimping on costs, and would complete the
trip with at least one successful close penguin encounter.


New Zealand South Island Penguins — 5 Comments

  1. Little Blue Penguins can also be found in the Marlborough Sounds at the top of the South Island. The most accesible place to visit them is by visiting Motuara island, a one hour water taxi from Picton. Motuara Island is a predator free island and home to the Saddleback which is now extinct from the mainland.

  2. Thanks for this tip! We have since seen Little Blues in the Marlborough Sounds, too, but for the purposes of this trip we were focusing on the larger breeding grounds where we would be more likely to ensure close sightings.

  3. Pingback: Perceptive Travel Blog » Blog Archive » Penguin Places in New Zealand’s South Island

  4. The Blues seem to be around all year and most species seem to be nesting in early spring (September), so you should be all set.

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