Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pinnipeds in Peril and Penguin Paparazzi

Greetings All,
We took our friends Jerry and Cilla's great advice and visited the Catlins. This area lies along the  southeastern coast of the South Island of New Zealand between Invercargill and Dunedin.  Here is a link to a map of the Catlins:

A mosaic of rolling farmland dotted with sheep and cows are interspersed with patches of temperate rainforest along rugged cliffs that drop off to isolated beaches. The area is sparsely populated and remote. You get the sense that this is the way New Zealand was years ago. The big draw for us was the opportunity to see some unique and rare wildlife:  Hector's Dolphins, Yellow-eyed Penguins and New Zealand Sea Lions. We went to Porpoise Bay to look for the Hector's Dolphins. At about 5 feet in length, it is one of the smallest cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and New Zealand's only endemic cetacean. There are only 8000 Hector's Dolphins left in the world. We scanned the bay with our binoculars and spotted dorsal fins in the distance! We went down to the beach and sure enough the Hector's Dolphins were cruising the bay.

We watched as they surfed the waves, leaped out of the water and poked their heads up. Marc was fortunate to capture a few of these moments.

I wanted to get closer but we didn't have a kayak or wet suits. A few brave souls went into the water in batching suits. The dolphins were curious and came to check out the kayakers and swimmers.  Oh, to be so close to such a rare creature!

We visited Surat Bay in search of New Zealand Sea Lions. A short walk through some dunes brought us to the beach. A couple told us there was a large Sea Lion just ahead. We found him half buried in the sand, trying to snooze despite the pestering flies. We continued past, rounded the corner and continued down a long stretch of isolated beach. We came across another two bulls and Marc stopped to photograph them.

I continued on finding a third male and two female sea lions napping together. Marc was still back at the second group of sea lions but I continued on. A group of 5 including a pup were snoozing together.  I sat on a log to watch them.

Marc finally joined me and we enjoyed the sea lions in complete isolation or so we thought. Two guys on dirt bikes came roaring up the beach and stopped right at the sea lions. Incredulous! What did these yahoos think they were doing? They pulled up next to another sea lion and got off their bikes. "What nerve!"I thought. One guy put on these long green rubber gloves. What on earth is he doing? Turns out they were there to pick up a dead pup for autopsy.

New Zealand Sea lions are "nationally critical", the highest threat category in New Zealand.  The death of even one pup is a concern for a species whose population has declined sharply over the last 10-12 years.  This pup may have been abandoned by it's mother or succumbed to a bacterial infection.

The third rare creature that we wanted to see is the Yellow-eyed Penguin. It was now 6:30 PM with just enough time to reach Roaring Bay. At this time of day the adults are returning to their nests to feed their chicks. Yellow-eyed penguins mate for life and always return to their favorite nesting site. There are only a few hundred of these rare penguins living along the Catlins coast. We arrived at a hide just past 7:00 PM. It was full but we managed to squeeze in. A penguin, about a hundred feet away, had already come ashore and was preening itself. A second stood motionless on the beach in the process of molting or maybe a chick waiting for its parents. Two more adult penguins popped out of the surf and headed up the beach. Three chicks came out to greet them begging to be fed.

We watched until they disappeared into the vegetation. I think we saw a total of 7 penguins before heading back to the car.

The next evening we went to Curio Bay to look for more penguins. We got there around 5:30 PM. A single molting penguin was nearby and we could see a second one on a rock far away. I went back to the car to put on more clothes and a penguin had emerged from the water around 6:00 PM, preened itself and started to rock hop to the vegetation where a hungry chick waited.

A guy spotted another penguin on the other side of the bay, high up on some rocks. More people showed up and started to spread out over the rocks, some close to the waters edge. A ranger showed up around 7:00 PM and pushed the crowd back to give the penguins enough space.   The Penguin Paparazzi had now grown to 100!

The next penguin didn't pop up until 7:25 PM. This got the crowd to it's feet. It was far away. At least another 3 penguins popped out of the ocean during the next half hour. The sun was getting too low for photos and we were getting cold so we left around 8:00 PM.

We had booked a Yellow-eyed penguin tour for the next night but it was cancelled. The tour operator suggested Roaring or Curio Bays. We had been to both those locations and so had most of the other tourists visiting the Catlins. The tour operator mentioned a third place, Long Point. The car park for Long Point was about 11 miles from the main road and it was a 30 minute walk to get to the Point. Perfect, this was the secret, secluded penguin spot that we were looking for. Surely, the Penguin Paparazzi wouldn't follow us here. We followed the tour operator's cryptic directions and found the car park. There were no cars, a good sign. We walked along a sheep pasture on top of a cliff and could see a brown hut below, our destination.

We sat on some rocks and waited patiently for the penguins to arrive. Marc spotted another couple sitting on some rocks 50 yards away. How did they get here?  We had not seen them on the path along the coast.  A penguin popped up about 150 feet away and then another. They took their time preening before slowly heading toward their nests. A third penguin appeared 80 feet away!  It preened for what seemed like forever before it started plodding to its nest.

Its chick popped out of the vegetation and greeted its parent by begging for food. They disappeared into the vegetation and a rabbit followed.

The other couple got up to leave and spotted us for the first time. They came over to chat and we answered in hushed whispers. They told us that we didn't have to be that quiet around the penguins. It turns out they owned the farm on top of the cliff. What an amazing place to live!

After they left, we had the seclusion I had hoped for. We watched as more penguins came ashore, preened then slowly started for their nests.

More chicks had emerged from the vegetation eagerly waiting for their parents.
We could have stayed longer but it was 8:50 PM and we had intruded on the penguins' world long enough. We climbed back to the top of the cliff as the sun was setting over the Southern Ocean.

A full moon rose to guide us back to our car. What a magical evening, one that we will not forget!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc


Jennifer Lynch said...

So glad you are having a great time! I love the photos.

Tom F said...

Looks like you were really close to the dolphins, great photos as always!