When I research a trip, I make a list of must sees, like to see, and hope to see. On this year’s trip to the South Island of New Zealand, Kiwi’s and penguins were pretty high on the priority list. It’s great to read all the guide books and tourist maps, but when you get there, you find there are choices…blue penguin or yellow-eyed. Which would I rather see? Can we see both? What are the habits of each? Nocturnal? Locations? Travel times? Alternative sites? (Why one of my favorite travel blogs ever was Type A Traveling at Bulldog Travels)
Personally, I would rather find wild animals on my own in their habitat rather than take a tour just to check a box. The next question is “Are we going to find them in their natural habitat without a guide?” Are we okay going home without seeing them?
These were all the questions going through our minds as we reached Oamaru, New Zealand and realized there was no way that we were going to reach our reservations at Penguin Place near Dunedin (The trip that should have taken 3 hours per the guidebook was taking 5.) Should we stay to see the Blue Penguins return at dusk? Should we continue on the trip and hope we saw penguins elsewhere?
We had a ferry to catch in a couple of days and had to continue south hoping for the best.
Later than expected (thanks to cars and trucks speeding up every passing lane leaving a line of traffic trailing them (a phenomenon we see on our local highway)), we arrived on the Otago Peninsula. We had a reservation for a campsite and settled in after 14 hours of flying and 11 hours of driving. The next morning, after the “full breakfast” and a couple of flat whites, we weren’t in the mood to take a tour; we needed exercise! We rode our bikes from Lower Portobello and hiked to a spot where locals said we might see penguins.
At the end of Victory Beach, we found the tracks of the last penguin hiking to the ocean for the day. We were rewarded with Southern Fur Seals but, alas, no penguins. It was fascinating to see all their scuffling in the sand as they climbed over the last dune into the bush. Nothing I ever imagined from pictures of penguins in Antarctica.
Later the same day, our tour of the Catlins took us to Curio Bay. Again, there was the chance to see Yellow-eyed penguins. But when? The penguins didn’t have a ferry to catch in the morning. We hiked down to the Petrified Forest (fascinating in itself) but then had to decide whether to keep driving or camp for the night. We decided to check on the camping, buy some supplies, and admire the view from the bluff. At the last second we decided to return to the petrified forest and look for penguins again.
We knew at first glance that penguins must be there because everyone was crowded into a cluster on the rocky shore. After a quick hike down the bluff, we took a seat on the rocks and watched as Yellow-eyed Penguins returned from their day at sea. It was more entertaining than I ever expected. We sat quietly on the rocks and let them go about their business (so happy to have a long lens for my camera). They look like any other bird in the ocean but, as they came to shore, they morphed into an awkward Weeble plodding across the rocks. As they preened themselves they seemed so proud; so detail oriented. They spent a long time cleaning themselves at the water’s edge.
But, with their head down, their walk looked like they were kicking a can down the road in anticipation of the next bad thing to happen. As they hopped from rock to rock, there was a long pause as they seemed to contemplate whether could make the landing. All I could think of was Eeyore. They had the look of a hard day at work and a long commute home.
The big surprise came as the last penguin came to the edge of the bush, leaned back, and called to the wild with the energy of an opera singer.
The early stress of seeing a penguin was alleviated in one instant. As opposed to the effort to see a Toucan in the jungles of Belize (Toucan’t See Me), finding penguins was easier than I expected. Off the coast of Stewart Island, we found Blue Penguins while kayaking with Phil’s Kayaks. Pictures? Sorry, trying to keep the kayak steady in heavy seas; both hands on the paddle and both feet working the rudder. The photos would not have been interesting because the birds were so small in such a large bay. The fascinating part was hearing the barking of penguins as they called back and forth to one another from all around us.
In Milford Sound, we were rewarded with a sighting of Fiordland crested penguins; a breed we had no expectations of seeing. The ship’s captain said it was rare to see the penguins and he had never seen such a large group (11 total).
And the kiwi? We went to Stewart Island in hopes of seeing one. As I sat out on the balcony with my cup of coffee early one morning, I heard the calls of 2 males and was happy with that. Next trip I might consider a tour.