When world-renowned ecologist Sir David Bellamy visited Dunedin in the year 2000 he was impressed by what he saw. “In my opinion the Otago Peninsula is the finest example of ecotourism in the world,” he said.
It’s a claim that few would challenge, as there are not too many cities around the globe that boast such a diverse range of wildlife all within easy reach of the city. Dunedin’s Otago Peninsula offers it all: from frolicking seal pups and lazy sea lions, to thriving populations of rare yellow eyed penguin and the only accessible mainland colony of Northern Royal Albatross in the world.
And it’s this unique phenomenon, seen at the Royal Albatross Centre located on Taiaroa Head on the tip of the peninsula, which remains the highlight for most visitors to the city. The centre controls visitor numbers and operates under strict Dept. of Conservation ruling. For a small entry fee, eco-guides lead groups up to the observatory where there’s a good view of these giant birds either sitting upon their eggs or soaring in the sky above like gigantic hang gliders.
There are 24 species of albatross and the Northern Royal Albatross is the largest of them all with a wing span of up to three metres. These allow them to use the wind current to its best advantage and spend up to a year at a time at sea, sleeping and feeding on the water. Around eighty percent of a Northern Royal Albatross’s life is spent at sea and they can glide for days at a time, averaging an incredible 500 km per day as they circumnavigate the southern oceans.
The birds usually choose to nest on inaccessible offshore islands, but in 1914 the first Northern Royal Albatross began to land at Taiaroa Head. In 1920 an egg was discovered and since then the colony has slowly grown and now boasts around 100 resident birds.
At Taiaroa Head the parent birds, who share incubation duty, sometimes wait for up to five days for their mate to return and relieve them. After 11 weeks the albatross chick hatches and its parents will continue to care for it for another nine months, before they leave to spend a year at sea. The juvenile, who has never flown or fed itself before, waits on the high cliffs of Taiaroa for a strong wind then launches itself into the air, and - like its parents – doesn’t return until the following year.
In the meantime locals anxiously await their return and when the first albatross arrives back at the colony, church bells peal for one hour to let the city know that the birds have arrived home safely.
On the rocks below the heads, NZ fur seals and sea lions laze in the sun. They can be viewed aboard a scenic boat ride with Monarch Wildlife Cruises or on kayak tours. Seal pups are best seen at Nature’s Wonders where visitors can board an all-terrain Argo for a ride across a private farm to watch baby seals frolic in naturally formed rock pools.
Other local marine life can be viewed at the Marine Studies Centre and Aquarium in Portobello, the Marine Science Department of Otago University, where extensive studies are underway on NZ seaweed. The aquarium features many species of fish and a series of ‘touch pools’ – rock pools teeming with colourful sea creatures for kids to explore. Here you can also feed hungry pigfish, shake hands with an octopus or peek inside a shark’s egg.
The Otago Peninsula’s colonies of Yellow Eyed Penguins can be viewed from a number of hides provided by DOC along the coastline and the best time to spot a penguin waddling to shore is just after sunrise and an hour before sunset.
At Howard McGrouther’s Penguin Place, where humans are caged and wildlife roams free, these rare penguins can be seen - especially during the breeding season - at most times of the day! This Yellow-Eyed Penguin Conservation Reserve is a private effort to save one of the world’s most endangered penguins from extinction.
When the penguins began to settle on the McGrouther’s farm, Howard dug an intricate network of burrows by hand so he wouldn’t disturb the wildlife or scar the landscape. The burrows travel through the dunes for 400 metres to hides where visitors can peer through narrow gaps and see the penguins squatting over huge pearly-white eggs.
The yellow-eyed penguins lay their eggs in the second half of September and, like the Royal Northern Albatross, both parents share the incubation period. The chicks hatch in November and then in mid-February they leave for the sea where they spend six weeks to six months at large before returning to the colony.
Penguin Place has a penguin hospital on site and a scientist is employed to help monitor their progress. Whilst most penguins prefer to live under the cover of bush – and many at Penguin Place do – some choose to nest out in the open. Protection is important for young chicks so in the interests of safety, Howard places an A-frame hut over the top of their nests. “They pick their nesting spot, I just provide them with a bit of shelter,” he says.
A couple of sheep roam between the nests to keep the grass short. This in turn keeps the mouse population down and their predators, the stoats and ferrets away. “Ecology is like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” says Howard, “Each piece is required to make up the whole picture.”
Visitors can self-drive to the Otago Peninsula to explore its many attractions or alternatively arrange a tour through the Dunedin Visitor Centre.