My luck in seeing New Zealand wildlife in the actual wild continued when I headed to the Otago Peninsula, just east of Dunedin on the southeastern coast of the South Island. Otago has a Royal Albatross Center, but alas they weren’t doing tours because the albatross were nesting and not to be disturbed.
That was okay, though, because I was really there to see the penguins. There are a lot of places along the coast where you can see blue penguins, sort of the hobbits of the penguin family, one of the smallest varieties on earth. But Otago has a few colonies of yellow-eyed penguins, the third largest penguin and the second rarest (after the Galapagos penguin).
Aside from being rare and big, yellow-eyed penguins look cool, like Darth Maul, and, unlike most other penguins, they are antisocial.
Of course I love them.
“They swim alone. They hunt alone. They come home alone,” said our tour guide soberly. (To see the penguins you have to take a tour through the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Conservation Reserve. I was fine with that because they’re really working hard to help the penguins, which, in addition to shunning their own kind, are very shy and easily agitated by the big ugly bipeds that come to gawk at them). Because I took the tour on a Sunday afternoon, I had the luck of having the reserve’s chief resident scientist, a German woman, giving the tour (it’s the only one she does each week).
If you are in the yellow-eyed peguin ‘hood, you definitely should try to get her as your guide, because she is patient with insatiably curious people who ask a lot of penguin-related questions (ahem) and completely knows her stuff. She’s also really passionate about saving the penguins, which, quite frankly, one would have to be if you lived among them for 17 years. Last year they had a bad year, losing more than 75% of the chicks that hatched as well as several adults for unknown reasons. Because there isn’t much call for penguin-focused veternarians, much of the bird’s inner workings remain a mystery, as does what happens to them when they’re out at sea.
Our guide theorized that an unknown virus wiped out the chicks, but was frustrated that the loss of the adults remained a mystery. She seemed to be near tears when she described the frustration of working so hard to keep them safe and healthy only to find they don’t return to the shore one day.
I think the topic of loss was particularly fresh in her mind because, apparently, the day before, a penguin returning to shore had been eaten by a sea lion right in front of a tour group. She seemed pretty shaken, understandable given that all the birds are named and tagged and their
mating and breeding histories displayed on the panels of the hide tunnels and trenches in which the tourists travel to avoid upsetting the fragile psyches of these amphibious loners.
Because it’s nesting time, we saw a couple from a distance just sitting around, either on an egg or waiting for one to drop, so to speak. Then our guide got a radio call from a coworker that a penguin had just come ashore (it was near twilight). She (the guide) got all excited and said “This way! Come on!” and took off down one of the camouflaged trenches.
Before I explain what happened next, I need to say that being slow is not a crime. Hell, I am one of the world’s slowest triathletes… but I stay out of the passing lane, unless I am actually passing. There is nothing wrong with not being the fastest, or even fast. But… there was a woman in our group of about a dozen people. She was older and extremely thin and husk-like and just had a very unpleasant look about her. Her husband was no charmer, either… in
addition to badly dyed hair (dude, just let it go gray or white… Sharpie black isn’t fooling anyone), kept forgetting to turn off his flash when taking pictures, a big no-no around the Garboesque penguins.
Husk lady had the annoying habit of pushing to be first whenever we moved anywhere as a group – even shoving kids out of the way – and then moving extremely slowly. In the narrow trenches and tunnels of the hides, there was no way to pass her. Now, I can understand that she didn’t want to be left behind, but our guide was great at waiting for everyone to reassemble as a group whenever we moved anywhere before she started talking. Her obnoxious pushiness was unecessary.
So when the guide said “come on!” and bolted, I knew what had to be done. And maybe it was rude, but I took a quick sidestep and the slightest shove and got past Husk just as she started blocking the way. And I ran, right on the heels of the guide. It wasn’t more than a hundred meters, but up and down and around the network of hides. We arrived at one hide just as the penguin was waddling right past us. It paused, fixing me with its red-ringed, yellow
eye that was just like the crazy contacts I had when I was Darth Maul (for Halloween, for a Star Wars convention, for a costume party, for, uh, a Friday… and a Tuesday).
It stood there for a second, appraising me, or at least the three inches of me visible through the slit opening in the hide, and then it continued on its way, disappearing into the long gold shore grass enroute to its home for the evening.
“They’re missing it,” lamented our guide.
The rest of the group, led by Husk, arrived a couple seconds after the penguin had disappeared into the grasses. I felt bad for them – especially a couple kids who were pretty bummed – but so fortunate that I’d gotten to see the penguin from just a few feet away.
Our group did not cross paths with another penguin on the tour, though we did find some male fur seals lounging about on the rocks near the shore. Husk kept getting closer and closer despite our guide’s warnings, trying to take a picture (with flash, of course). “Ma’am! Please! Step back! Do not go further!”
I wanted to say no, let her go. I’d only feel bad for the seal, crunching on all that bone and tough meat.