There are no ATMS or banks in the Catlins, a stretch of forested and gently mountainous coast on the southeast edge of the South Island, roughly between Invercargill and Dunedin. There is also, as far as I could tell, no reliable cell phone reception and certainly no Hell Pizza or Starbucks (not that those things are necessary. I’m jus’ sayin’.)
What the Catlins has plenty of, however, are penguins, dolphins, New Zealand fur seals, sea lions and the occasional whale and elephant seal. It also has one of the largest and best preserved Jurassic era petrified forests and if you think that’s where I headed first, you’d be right.
Leaving Invercargill on the optimistically named Southern Scenic Highway (it was ok, just not Fiordland-level scenic), I stopped first at Slope Point, which is the southernmost bit of the South Island. Why is it always overcast and gloomy when I visit the ends of New Zealand? I took the obligatory photo and moved on.
I got to the Curio Bay Petrified Forest at around 1600 and walked around the fossilized trees, trying to get good photos in the lame light. It was a neat location, accessible only at low tide and right on the rocky coast, inundated twice a day with sea water for millions of years… it’s amazing it’s survived at all, nevermind in such good shape.
I was heading to the north end of the forest when a woman sitting on the rocks in a Department of Conservation jacket said “please don’t go any further. A penguin has just come ashore and is heading to his nest.”
Are there any sweeter words to hear than that?
I knew there were hoiho, yellow-eyed penguins, around Curio Bay, but I also knew they come ashore just before dark, which was a good five hours away. But am I complaining? Hell no. The hoiho, or Darth Maul penguin, is one of the rarest and also happens to be my favorite. So I sat on the rocks next to her and watched in delight as the penguin waddle-walked across the rocks to its nest in the scrub, where two nearly-grown chicks came out to demand and receive food. Not as close as I got to see them on the Otago Peninsula back in late September, but near enough to be thrilled. I was about to get up when she said “wow, you’re lucky. Another one is coming ashore.”
And sure enough, penguin number two hopped up onto the rocks, tripped (oops), got up and headed for its nest. Apparently, though they usually come ashore near twilight, they’re unpredictable enough to hop out of the sea whenever they want, though sighting two in a row was unprecedented, according to the DOC warden, who, going against the grain of most DOC folks I’ve dealt with, was friendly and informative.
I camped that night at the Curio Bay campground, set on the flax-covered headland between the bay and Porpoise Bay, a large, sheltered stretch of water that is famous for being home to a pod of Hector’s Dolphins, the smallest and rarest of the dolphin family. I’d seen them in Doubtful Sound, and was hoping to be one of the lucky people who gets to swim with them in Porpoise Bay. It’s a very informal thing, you just get in the water and hope the magic happens. (It is also free, like seeing the penguins).
I got up the next morning to overcast skies, put on my wetsuit and headed down to the bay, trying not to step on the various sea lions hanging out in the campground or on the beach, including two young males who were play-fighting ever so adorably. I asked the guy giving surf lessons if I needed to be wary of any rip tides or such and he said no, so I donned my booties and swimcap and………
I sat on the rocks on the beach for a long time, looking at the water, watching while the surfer dude led his charges to the far side of the bay. I was at the part of the bay nearest the ocean. It was a gloomy day. The water was murky. There were a lot of seals and sea lions about. And all I could think of was, you guessed it.
Shark attacks are most likely in murky water, in the morning, in areas frequented by seals and sea lions… check, check and check. I didn’t see any dolphins either, and convinced myself it was because a shark had scared them off. I also didn’t really want to get my wetsuit wet. There was no place to really clean it afterward (the campground, while beautifully situated, was very basic) and I’ve seen (and smelled) what happens to a wetsuit you leave crusty with salt water.
Also, aside from a brief spell of snorkeling in the Cayman Islands when the Dread Pirate Iron Bluebird and I went a few years ago, I really haven’t been in the ocean in years. The last time I went into surf like the one at Porpoise Bay was in Manasquan, New Jersey, when I was about eight and a wave sent me somersaulting back to shore with sand up my nose.
So I sat there, thinking about sharks and stinky wetsuits and sneezing sand and generally chickening out.
That’s when I saw the head in the water.
It bobbed up and back down, about 50 meters offshore, right in front of me. Then it was 25 meters. Then ten. Then a male subadult sea lion came flipperflopping ashore, making a beeline for me.
The sea lions usually don’t bother humans much unless they get too close. In retrospect, I think the fact that I was in a wetsuit, wearing a swim cap, curled up on a rock made me look more like a sea lion than a biped. That may explain why the sea lion was giving me the eye. Seriously. He was staring me down as he approached, quickly.
I wasn’t sure what to do. On the one hand, if he hadn’t seen me or thought I was a rock, I didn’t want to startle him by moving. On the other hand, I was not interested in getting my ass kicked by a sea lion (their bites are apparently not only painful but loaded with bacteria). I got up slowly.
In sealionspeak, “getting up slowly” apparently means “throwing down and asking for a helping of whup-ass.” The sea lion started barking and running for me. Holy crap! I ran down the beach, shouting “alrightalrightalright!” much to the apparent amusement of a German couple watching from much higher up on the rocks.
Finally the sea lion stopped, so I did too. As soon as I did, he came running again, chasing me down the beach. This happened a couple times until he was distracted by tourists taking his picture.
Standing alone on the beach, I thought well, I’m up. I might as well. It’s now or never. So I put on my goggles and headed in to the water. It was definitely the ocean, with about two meters (seven feet) of visibility, which I did not like at all. I got out past the breakers and started tapping the surface of the waters, which surfers told me attracts the dolphins. I also started humming as I swam (“Beyond the Sea,” which was the only thing I could think of other than the theme from “Jaws”), which I also heard attracts the dolphins.
The whole time I was thinking (and sometimes murmuring aloud) “only dolphins only dolphins please no sharks only dolphins.”
This went on for about half an hour. I was cold even with the wetsuit, most likely due to nerves and the sharp wind, I was anxious about the murky water and feeling like well, I tried.
Then I just had a feeling. I sensed there was something in the water with me. Part of me chalked it up to my overactive imagination, but the other part thought you know, I’m cold, and I’m out here in this part of bay alone, without anyone to grab me if a shark does bite my leg off.
So I started swimming back to shore.
That’s when it happened.
Three Hector’s dolphins came up behind me, one on the right and two on the left, including a smaller one that must have been a juvenile. They were close enough to touch. They came up out of the murk at speed, slowed slightly as they looked me over and then disappeared back into the dull green water. I popped my head up and saw their dorsal fins already several meters away, turning back out toward sea. I hummed, I tapped the water again, but they were gone. The encounter lasted less than two seconds, but it was incredible (and scary… the speed and suddeness with which they appeared reminded me of all that footage of sharks attacking seals).
I had the feeling the dolphins were being polite, saying “okay, you wanted to see dolphins, whatever. Here we are. Big deal. Now quit humming. It’s giving us a headache.”
The rest of my Catlins experience paled in comparison, of course, to the wildlife trifecta at Curio and Porpoise Bay. I checked out enormous and truly cathedral-like caves known as, funny enough, Cathedral Caves, paused for a photo at Cannibal Bay and watched seal pups play and spoonbills, uh, spoon at Nugget Point. Lovely to see, though my sharpest memory of the area will always be that brief moment when I was just another fish in the sea. Or sea lion on the beach.