We had originally planned to visit Fiordland, Mt Aspiring, and continue up the west coast of the South Island. This itinerary would miss the east coast almost entirely, but after our big trip to Stewart Island we had somewhat limited time. However, after getting a little touristed-out in Queenstown and Wanaka we found a brochure for the Vanished World Centre in Duntroon and decided to change our itinerary. Duntroon, as you may or may not know, is a very small town with limited accommodation options. Upon advice from the hotel owner in Wanaka, we decided to stay in Omaru. All of these last minute decisions brought us to one of the best experiences of our entire six week stint in New Zealand.
First of all, Omaru is a lovely town with a variety of tasty restaurants and a quaint Victorian Precinct that reminded both of us of Colonial Williamsburg in the states. Upon arrival, Lauren set Joey up for a nap in the hotel room while Simon visited the front desk. He came back and enthusiastically laid out the plan – our one night in Omaru was to be spent penguin viewing.
Penguins are well known as inhabitants of Antarctica. However, different species of penguins range as far north as the equator. There are 17 total species of penguin, of which six live and breed in New Zealand. All penguins are flightless and spend their days hunting in the ocean for krill and fish. They can rest at sea, but most spend the night on land. During nesting season, pairs of penguins build nests in holes in sea cliffs along the beach. After the chicks hatch, the parents spend many more weeks caring for the baby penguins, hunting during the day and returning in the evening to provide them with food. Since the penguins only nest at certain beaches, it is possible to witness their return from sea in the evening if you have the patience to sit and wait.
We first set out to search for the extremely rare yellow-eyed penguin. There are less than 500 mating pairs of these birds left in the world, and Omaru is the furthest north that they travel. We gathered along the top of the cliffs at the yellow-eyed penguin viewing area along with about 100 other excited people with binoculours and cameras. We waited patiently, and had many false alarms from sea lions playing in the kelp. Finally, an excited murmur ran through the crowd.
At the far end of the beach, a penguin was waddling up the beach towards the bush! It was difficult to see even with our 300mm telephoto lens, but so thrilling to spot one of these rare birds. Thankful that our 5 month old was content to eat and sleep in the ergo front pack, we waited around as dusk approached and saw a total of nine yellow-eyed penguins make the journey from sea to land. They would be unceremoniously be deposited on the sand by waves, and then make their way up the beach well clear of the surf. At this point they stopped and preened their feathers, cooling off after burning so many calories swimming and landing on the beach. They then continued up to the edge of the bush, where you could just make out the tiny sounds of the chicks calling for their parents. Some penguins continued straight on up to their nests, while others stopped and waited awhile. They gathered in small groups of two or three, perhaps their only social opportunity of the day.
After enjoying the yellow-eyed penguins, we continued along to the Omaru Penguin Center, which hosts over a hundred nesting boxes for the much more common little blue penguin. We paid the entry fee and were told many times of the strict no photography rule. We were led to a set of bleachers, from which we again waited while staff periodically shared facts about the penguins and reminded guests that there was no photography. (Flashes confuse the penguins and make it hard for them to see, but we weren’t really clear on why photography without a flash would be a problem). Here instead of arriving one at a time, penguins arrived in ‘rafts’ of up to 25 birds. They landed a little more neatly and clambered up the rocks towards the tunnel that led to their artificial nesting area. Although we were much closer to the penguins and there were many more of them, somehow this experience didn’t quite compare with seeing the yellow-eyed penguins from afar on an untamed beach.