Nature Tours on the Otago Peninsula

After weeks spent in rural towns, Dunedin came as a bit of a shock. It seems like most places on New Zealand’s South Island are barely big enough to qualify as towns, let alone cities. So coming into a big city like Dunedin is a bit of an eye-opener.

At night the stars no longer shine, the city lights too bright. The rolling green fields vanish, replaced with wooden houses on tidy streets. The buildings grow upwards, looming over you, covering the sky. For once you’re in a place where people out number the sheep.

It’s nice at first. The comfort of a city is obvious. Cheap gas and groceries. Restaurants as far as the eye can see. Everything you’ve ever dreamed of. Free internet. Cellphone reception. Burger King. But soon you’re accustomed to it all and you start to feel empty. Sick at the sight of another concrete car park or noisy city bus.

Thankfully in Dunedin, the country isn’t so far away. Just half an hour, in every direction, you’ll find yourself back in rural New Zealand. In one particular direction is the Otago Peninsula. A small sliver of land shooting up from the sea, surrounded by beaches and tall cliffs. Sparsely populated and quiet. The perfect place for some wildlife.

fiordland penguin

Since the Peninsula is so close to Dunedin, droves of tourists flock there to get in touch with nature. The downside is that it all comes at a price. If you want to see anything, you’ll have to pay for it. The upside is that the whole peninsula is well managed, mostly preventing tourists from having a negative environmental impact.

The land is mostly private, so in order to see most things you’ll need to pay for a tour. Since I’m such a big fan of New Zealand birds, I decided it was time to put my money where my mouth is, booking us on a grand total of 4 tours in one day. First up, to see some yellow eyed penguins.

Penguin Place Tour

The yellow eyed penguin is quite possibly the ugliest penguin you will ever see. When you picture a penguin you’ll probably think of the ones that hang out in Antarctica – the empire penguin. The yellow eyed penguin is their ugly cousin. But even though they’re ugly, that doesn’t mean they’re not worth the effort.

yellow-eyed-pennguin

The penguins are starting to become rare, mostly in part due to humans. These penguins need a special habitat in which to lay their eggs. Native bush close to the sea. Most of this type of habitat has been destroyed in New Zealand. To make matters worse, the birds are shy. If they even so much as see a human on shore, they won’t go back to their nest. The result is their population is declining.

That’s where Penguin Place comes in. The land is owned by a family of farmers who learnt that penguins were living on their beach. Since then they’ve started to protect their land from predators as well as making it more attractive for the penguins to visit.

penguin place otago peninsula beach
The private beach at Penguin Place – only for penguins!

I was a little hesitant to do this tour at first, but my mind was quickly put at ease. The habitat has been created in such a way that you can get really close to the penguins, but only view them through hides. This creates an effect where the penguin can only see part of and you look small – so not threatening. The tour guide was so knowledgeable that he knew which penguins were more laid back.

yellow eye penguins moulting

It was incredible how close we got to these penguins. At most they were a metre away. Yet they were completely unfazed. As I’ve said, my main impression was that they were ugly as anything.

yellow eyed penguin

We finished the tour with a look at some seals, loafing on the grass. So content.

seal lying on grass

Monarch Boat Tour

Next we jumped on a boat for the Monarch Nature Tour. Heading along the coast to see what wildlife lived on the cliffs.

jamie on monarch tour

More seals, this time with their pups that were splashing around in a rock pool, learning to swim.

seal pup on taiaroa head

Our guide was hard to hear over the roar of the boat’s engine, but he pointed out a ridiculous amount of seabirds to us. For the first 30 minutes I barely had a moment to catch my breath.

shag flying

Then the boat swung out to sea in search of more birds. At this point we started to rock around back and forth. Jamie was staring out at the horizon, her face turning grey. Unable to enjoy a strange looking albatross on the water.

albatross in sea

Fortunately the boat soon swung back toward shore. By then I was also getting a little light-headed. I swore I could see a seal on the beach. Only to look again and realise it was a log.

seal on taiaora head
Seal or log?

 

As we pulled into the dock, a sea lion was there to greet us. Even our tour guide was excited, as he said it was a rare occurrence. It glared up at us with a snarl.

new zealand fur seal on otago peninsula

Royal Albatross Centre Tour

Next we headed off to the Royal Albatross Centre. A guide gave us a lecture before leading us to view the birds from a special building right at the top of the cliffs. Below us we could see a few nests of the royal albatross.

The bird is rarely seen on land, only touching down to raise a chick. Before that it spends a whopping 5 years at sea, travelling all the way to Argentina before circling around the Antarctic. They usually nest on remote islands and the pairs on the Otago Peninsula are the only ones on a mainland in the world.

royal albatross above taiaroa head

From above, the birds are quite boring in honesty and we could only see one or two sitting around, as well as a few fluffy chicks. I’d almost given up on the tour being worthwhile, when one of the birds appeared in the sky, flying past the building. It circled around showing off its wings, which are almost 3 metres long. The birds glide on the wind and are huge. They’re so big that you can barely believe they’d be capable of flight.

To top things off, a black backed gull landed on the window beside us with a mouse in its mouth. It didn’t know we were there as the windows were tinted. Quite scary really.

black backed gull with mouse in mouth

Blue Penguin Pukekura Tour

After a long day, we were kind of toured out but had already paid for this tour so there was no turning back. Just outside the Royal Albatross Centre there’s a small beach where a colony of blue penguins nest. Each night at dusk they all scamper out of the water to run back to their homes.

To call it a tour isn’t really correct when it’s basically a 5 minute talk followed by penguin viewing.

The whole thing starts off as a bit of a race as everybody rushes down the hill to get the best spot on the viewing platform. The platform is a series of steps, but you basically can’t see anything unless you stand at the front, leaning against the platforms edge.

Jamie and I found ourselves a nice spot on the side of the platform with an good view of the beach. Then we waited. The sun disappeared and the sky started to darken. Still we waited. We waited and waited and waited. It was at the point of boredom when a guide pointed to the horizon and said there were some penguins coming in.

If you squinted, far in the distance you could see a little line on the water, moving slowly towards the shore. As the line came closer it grew in size. This line, it was explained, is called a raft. The penguins swim around in the water before dusk, waiting for the other penguins. Then when they’ve formed a group (a raft) they all swim towards the beach. I suppose the idea is that if they all leave the water together they’re less likely to get into harm.

penguin raft in distance off taiaroa head

So we could see this raft coming towards us. We knew it was penguins. But we couldn’t really see anything. Just a small wave coming towards us. By this point everybody was staring at the line in anticipation. Knowing that the line was a bunch of penguins. Excitement building.

Soon the raft was almost upon us and it seemed to be moving quicker. In no time it was on the beach. Like magic, thirty or so tiny penguins appeared on the sand. All running towards us, some stumbling and half falling over. Thirty wobbly feet.

blue penguins emerging from sea off taiaroa head

I have to admit, it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. That sounds hyperbolic, but really, it was astonishing. Something so bizarre that my mind couldn’t understand how it was real.

Alas, the magic was short lived as soon enough the whole thing was spoilt. The viewing platform was too crowded, so some other tourists started to nudge into us. Pushing and shoving to get to the front and see the penguins.

The penguins made their way up the rocks towards some grass, walking right beside the viewing platform and soon everybody was whipping out their iPhone trying to get a picture of a penguin. Beforehand we were told that we weren’t to shine lights at the penguins or use flash as both can cause the penguins discomfort. It seemed the warnings fell on deaf ears as half a dozen people were shining bright lights right in the penguins faces. The whole thing just made me angry.

It made me wonder who the real animals are. The penguins trying to go to their nests, or the hundred or so tourists nudging into each other to get as many photos of a penguin as they could. For the remainder of the tour, Jamie and I just spent our time standing behind everybody waiting for a chance to get another look. But since we were unwilling to join the moshpit we missed out in the end. The whole thing was a little disappointing and didn’t seem to be very respectful to the penguins. It seemed a bit exploitative to have a hundred noisy people gawping a few feet away from a load of wild penguins.

One tour guide told us that she used to come to the beach as a child for picnics to watch the penguins and some idiots would throw stones at them. So I suppose what is provided now is the lesser of two evils. At least now there are guides there to take care of anybody throwing stones and the beach is protected by fences during the night. But surely the smartest thing of all would be to just have no people there at all?

As usual, such things made me feel confused and hypocritical. Whenever I see tourists spoiling nature in some way, I always think, well, I’m a tourist too, so maybe I’m part of the problem? I’m no better than them, even if I do have good intentions.

It was a bittersweet ending to an otherwise amazing day in the Otago Peninsula, where I do think they’ve got it almost right. A good middle ground between tourism and conservation, where they can help animals while also showing you some really amazing things. Even if some of them are pretty ugly!

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