© NZPocketGuide.com
© NZPocketGuide.com

Close Encounters with Royal Albatross and Little Blue Penguins

© NZPocketGuide.com

176 Days on the Road

Right on the end of the Otago Peninsula, at a place called Taiaroa Head, is the world’s only mainland royal albatross colony. We’ve seen these larger than large seabirds gliding around Taiaroa Head and flying past our boat as we have taken various wildlife tours around Taiaroa Head. But there’s a way to have a far more intimate experience and get to know how intelligent these birds are. We’re heading there in our campervan right now!

We set off from the Hogwartz Backpackers early evening so our viewing of the royal albatross can coincide with watching the little blue penguins return from fishing at dusk. However, the rain has been coming down hard all day. The Otago Peninsula road has been subject to a few landslips, it’s pretty cold and windy… But what we humans find as grim weather, the wildlife is sure to find heaps of fun.

The journey to Taiaroa Head

On the final upwards climb up to Taiaroa Head, starting 4km away, we can already see the outlines of the royal albatross gliding around the head. About four of them can be seen with their magnificent wingspan that can reach up to three metres. From afar, they look like seagulls on steroids.

Parking up at the Royal Albatross Centre, we are even tempted to take photos out of the campervan window! They are putting on such a show, gliding in circles above us. We must refrain, we are going to go on a tour which includes a viewing area of the northern royal albatrosses’ nests.

The Royal Albatross mini museum

The free-entry mini museum of the Royal Albatross Centre tells the story of the world’s albatross with interactive maps and information boards. Specimens also show not only the size of the world’s largest seabirds, but the effects of long-line fishing which is a huge threat to royal albatross. The displays also give an overview of the Otago Peninsula’s other residents, such as the New Zealand fur seals and the little blue penguins (both of which we are hopefully going to spot tonight)!

The fascinating life of the Southern Royal Albatross

Our guide for the royal albatross tour, Suzanne, comes to collect us from the grasps of the museum and takes us into a room with more information boards. One of which is a year in the life of the southern royal albatross. It’s easy to be in awe of the royal albatross just thanks to its size and face with a stern expression, but once we learn about the connection between breeding pairs – how they can be apart for a whole year circling Antarctica, travelling 1,000km a day, to land back on Taiaroa Head within days of each other. Both parents take it in turns to gather food over a few days to feed their chick (and themselves) while the other one nests on the vulnerable chick. The process is so tough that the birds have a year off between breeding.

Misunderstood seagulls

The presentation is ended with a short video on the history of Taiaroa Head and the northern royal albatross. Now that we are educated enough, we head up to the viewing area of the royal albatross. However, we don’t get there quickly thanks to the endangered red-billed gull colony just off the footpath. Wait, seagulls are endangered?! New Zealand’s native seagulls, the very ones that stole our chips back in Whitianga, are actually dropping in number at an alarming pace. We now have to wipe the tears from our eyes as we watch a couple of spotted chicks cowering under their mothers’ body. Be safe, seagulls, be safe!

Watching the royal albatross show!

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Getting close to the world’s largest seabird

Suzanne takes us into a viewing room built into the headland. Through the narrow windows, we are blown away by the sight. About a dozen humongous albatross can be seen doing all sorts of different things: some nesting, others gathered in small groups following each other from the grassy head up into the air, catching some wind for a quick flight, then landing in the same spot, then there will be the odd couple engaging in some sort of mating ritual which involves pulling the grass with their beaks and bringing their beaks together. We are viewing the royal albatross during their mating and laying season.

The history of Taiaroa Head

Nothing prepares us for how close we get to this colony. We feel so lucky to be watching this albatross show (and feel so sorry for Suzanne who has to pry us away from the viewing area to take us to the next one). The next viewing area is where the military history of Taiaroa Head comes into play, because the viewing area is actually part of the fort installed into the head in 1885 with the threat of a Russian invasion. As we walk through the tunnels of this military battery, seeing models of weapons and other military relics, Suzanne explains how Taiaroa Head was once home to 100 people. In fact, albatross didn’t start colonising on Taiaroa Head until the 1938!

From the second viewing area, we get a closer look at two nesting albatross who are looking calm and collected.

From disappearing guns to disappearing burgers

After a tour of the battery, complete with mannequin scenes of how soldiers used to live up here to an actual 6 Inch Rifled Breech Loading Hydro-Pneumatic Armstrong Disappearing Gun (just try to say that three times in a row!), we are finishing our tour back in the Royal Albatross Centre. We have a couple of hours to spare before the little blue penguins make an appearance, so we treat ourselves to a burger in the cafe, watching the albatross still making use of the wind from the large windows of the cafe.

Little blue penguin time!

8.45pm rocks around. It’s starting to get dark, which means… little blue penguins!! That’s right, every night when the sun goes down, a colony of the world’s smallest penguins land on Pilot Beach after a hard day’s fishing.

Our tour guide for the little blue penguin viewing give us a quick rundown of how to view the penguins in a way that minimises disturbing them, then we head down to the beach. A large decking area overlooks the beach, with dim lights lighting up the path to where the penguins will be waddling to.

We wait… We wait a little more… We wait for about 45 minutes with the beach not having any activity other than a flock of seagulls gathering in their masses. We’ve already had the time to appreciate you guys! Give us little blue penguins!

187 little blue penguins

A dark patch in the water makes its way to the beach until… Pop, pop, pop… Tens of penguins pop out from the water and start profusely waddling across the beach towards us! They have a few obstacles to maneuver over to get to their burrows hidden in the grassy areas around and under the viewing deck. Stumbling and fumbling over the rocks, they just don’t give a sh*t if they face-plant the floor to get to their burrows.

The next wave of penguins come, then the next… Then the next?! How many are there?! Some penguins rush as a team to their burrows, while others stop every so often to scratch their bellies, get split up from the rest of the group, stop for a natter with their fellow penguins.

By the end of the night, the tour guide had counted 187 penguins!

The wildlife capital of New Zealand

What a finale to our time on the Otago Peninsula! Over the last few days, we’ve seen sea lions, yellow-eyed penguins, more wading birds and seabirds than we can count… We’ve seen playful New Zealand fur seals… And today, the closest experience that we’ll probably ever have with the royal albatross and the little blue penguins. This really is a special place in the world. We are privileged to see all this amazing wildlife in its natural environment while knowing that the the albatross guided-tour fees are contributing to the conservation of the wildlife.

Tomorrow, we check out more of Dunedin’s coastline at Tunnel Beach! Join us then!

Robin gets a closer look at the little blue penguins

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