Searching for the Yellow-eyed Penguin in New Zealand

Yellow-eyed penguin at the Otago Peninsula in New Zealand (Photo credit: MCArnott)

Yellow-eyed penguin at the Otago Peninsula in New Zealand (Photo credit: MCArnott)

The word “maybe” is out. We might see some, but there is no guarantee. Do we still want to go? We do. A guide points to our transportation–an 8-wheel-drive Argo–a cross between a tractor and a boat. We’ll be taking this vehicle to see the penguins that live in the mild environment of New Zealand’s South island. I learn right then that penguins are not endemic only to Antarctica; in fact, more of them live in warmer climate than cold ones.

Meanwhile, what’s left of our group gets into a discussion about the vehicle we’ve nicknamed “Argo” and the gear we must wear: waterproof jackets and rubber boots. Our guide confirms that both the drive and the short walk will be a bit of a challenge. As for the birds, the timing for cruise ship shore excursions doesn’t always coincide with the penguins’ daily activities. But one might oblige us with a swim. “Only one?” Unfortunately, the shy yellow-eyed penguin is also the rarest and most endangered of all penguins.

In Your Bucket Because

  • Natures Wonders is owned by the Reid family, which entirely funds its own conservation project on its farmland.
  • British environmental campaigner and botanist David Bellamy recognized the Dunedin’s Otago Peninsula as the finest eco-tourism destination in the world.
  • Good for: Bird watchers and tourists who can rough it a little.

Cruising the Down-Under Continent to Port Chalmers

We are on our fourth day of a Sapphire Princess cruise that started in Auckland, New Zealand and will end in Sydney, Australia after stopping in Hobart, Tasmania. On the way, we’ll see kangaroos, Tasmanian devils, and other kinds of animals and birds endemic to the down under territories. But here at the Otago Peninsula in New Zealand, it’s all about seeing, or not seeing, the “hoiho.” The yellow-eyed penguin earned the Maori moniker of “noise maker” because of its shrill call.

From our port-of-call eight miles from Dunedin, a minibus took us to tip of the Otago Peninsula: Taiaroa Head. There, we checked-in at Natures Wonders for our eco-tour of the pristine headlands and of Penguin Beach. The east coast of New Zealand’s South Island is the mainland home of the yellow-eyed penguins, but they are also found in the Sub-Antarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands.

Finding “Hoiho” the Endangered Yellow-eyed Penguin

Ready to go with our Argo 8-wheel vehicle (Credit: DVWard)

Ready to go with our Argo 8-wheel vehicle (Credit: DVWard)

The beginning of the muddy trail to  the cliff (Credit: MCArnott)

The beginning of the muddy trail to the cliff (Credit: MCArnott)

Our vehicle slides on a plateau of lush meadows lofted on hills above the Pacific Ocean. Nonchalant woolly sheep watch us pass by as if we were a boring intrusion. Then, Argo begins to wiggle its way down a slippery road, and mud squirts on us from the back wheels. Never mind, I hang on to my seat staring at the approaching edge of the cliff. I hold my breath: Off we go along the incline. The driver is now lower than us, and although I don’t feel safely contained in this sideless vehicle, everything seems under control. When Argo reaches the beach, I look back and dismiss the thought of having to retrace our ride on the return. By now, I’d be happy to see even just one yellow-eyed penguin.

Around us a gooey green masses looks like giant spinach fettuccini. Our guide says they are seaweeds stuck in mini lagoons created by the low tide. Fur seals sunbathe on the nearby rocks and get splashed by cooling waves. No penguins in sight yet, not even one of the more common little blue penguins.

It’s time to follow our guide on a path up the cliff and onto a wooden observatory. From here, we can spy on the penguins — assuming we see any — although it will be hard to spot their typical yellow iris and headband from this distance.

“There!” Someone says. I grab one of the pairs of binoculars provided for visitors and stare intently at “hoiho” who is magnified by the lens. It might be my only chance to see one. The bird stands just outside its rocky cave and could retreat at any moment. I quickly get hold of my  camera and snap: I got it!

The Conservation of the Yellow-eyed Penguin

The observatory to watch the yellow-eyed penguins (Photo Credit: MCArnott)

The observatory to watch the yellow-eyed penguins (Photo Credit: MCArnott)

Indeed, I only saw that one penguin during our short visit at the end of February, which is when the birds begin to moult: their least active time. The best viewing is from November to February. Sadly, the bird population has declined by more than 50 percent since the mid-1990s. In 2004 on the Otago Peninsula, sixty percent of the chicks died from unknown causes. To make matter worse, between mid January and early February 2013, fifty-six adults were found dead on the Otago Peninsula beaches and in breeding areas. The culprit might be marine bio-toxin.

The Department of Conservation and the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust work at rehabilitating forests and shrubland degraded by human activities. The penguins’ habitat consists of both land and sea.  They can be found loafing up to 17 kilometres from their nesting areas, yet they need the marine environment for food and for intermingling with neighboring colonies.

From natural predators to man-made obstacles and to diseases, the blue-eyed penguins are in danger of extinction. Unfortunately, this is the only species of penguins that won’t be tamed. It is also the least social and a solitary breeder: “Hoiho” needs all the help it can get.

Yellow-eyed penguin in nest (Courtesy Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust)

Yellow-eyed penguin in nest (Courtesy Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust)

Practicalities

  • Visitors with more time than a shore excursion can observe the activities of undisturbed penguins during breeding season from a system of hides and tunnels above and in the sand dunes with   tour operator Penguin Place.
  • Learn more about conservation:  Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust.
  • The tour is not suitable for visitors with limited mobility.
  • Natures Wonders is a farming and tourism facility. The check-in office is also a gift shop.
  • Lodging is available at Penguin Place, a farm-stay facility and private conservation reserve.

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