I realise that NZ may not be obviously associated with penguins, but there are in fact loads of different penguin species here. Seeing penguins was really high up on my list of things to do for the trip.
One of the best known places for viewing little blue penguins is Oamaru, where you can sit in a purpose-built grandstand watching them return to their nests. The ‘penguin parade’ is all lit up and the penguins have got so used to it that they no longer display the more natural behaviour of returning to their nests under cover of darkness. Needless to say this didn’t appeal at all…we wanted natural penguins, or no penguins at all! So, we gave the Oamaru penguins a wide berth and went for some other penguin viewing experiences instead.
Pohatu, Akaroa is the largest Australasian Penguin colony on mainland New Zealand and the team not only run tours, but help to preserve the birds and their habitat. The penguins are a white-flippered variant of the little blue penguins found in Oamaru and only found on the Akaroa peninsula. We booked an evening tour and were picked up in town and taken out to the colony in a 4wd vehicle as that is the only way you can access it. When we arrived, we were joined by one other couple and issued with binoculars and camouflage tops. As it was still light, the adult birds were mostly out at sea and we would get the chance to wait in hides and watch them return to shore as it grew dark.
As part of the conservation project, the team provide the penguins with nesting boxes which some birds use instead of digging burrows and they check the boxes for chicks and monitor their progress. We hadn’t really known what to expect, but I think all four of us were really surprised when our guide told us that he would check some of the boxes while we were there. Sure enough, there were penguin chicks in the nest boxes only feet away from us! The camouflage gear is actually so that you don’t disturb them too much when the box lids are lifted, and there is strictly no flash photography allowed.
From there we walked along to the hides and watched the adult birds swimming in to the shore and propelling themselves torpedo-style onto the rocks. They wait there until darkness falls and then go back to their nests. We all became pretty good at spotting the birds in the water (easier when you know what to look for) and saw loads of them swim in. It really helped that we were provided with binoculars as it is quite difficult to see once the light starts to fade. If you want an authentic-feeling penguin experience then this a great one to go for and we absolutely loved it!
The Penguin Place on the Otago peninsula also runs a penguin conservation scheme, but this one is for yellow-eyed penguins. In fact, their conservation scheme is funded entirely by tourism. One of the differences between blue penguins and yellow-eyed ones is that the yellow-eyed ones come and go from their nests at any time of day, not just evening, so you have a chance of seeing them return at any time of day. Also, there is always one adult bird with the chick in the nest so you can watch them in their burrows. The penguin place has a series of underground hides which makes it possible to view the adults and chicks up close, again you mustn’t use camera flashes or make any noise. During our visit we so one of the birds land on the beach and begin walking back to its nest and had a chance to view lots of other birds on their nests. The guide who took us around knew all about the birds and was, in a lot of cases, able to give us information about the particular birds that we saw.
Out final penguin encounter was on Doubtful sound, where we saw a couple of Fiordland crested penguins sitting on a rock we cruised by. It was great to see them sitting there and it completed a hat trick of penguin species!