© NZPocketGuide.com
© NZPocketGuide.com

Penguin, Sea Lion and Seal Spotting on the Otago Peninsula

© NZPocketGuide.com

171 Days on the Road

“Penguins 16km”. This is the sort of sign we wish we saw on every road! There’s also “Albatross 22km”, “Seal Lions 24km”… We can only be going to one place from the bustling city of Dunedin, The Otago Peninsula!

We are sat in the Elm Wildlife Tours van being driven by our guide, Donna, and joined by a lovely couple from the UK. Our mission today is to spot the abundance of wildlife calling the Otago Peninsula home, from royal albatross to wading birds to the rare yellow-eyed penguin. Taking a wildlife tour to find all the best spots at the right times, and some places only accessible with the tour, seems to be the way to do it!

A cheeky visit to Larnach Castle

Before we spot any wildlife though, we are about to spot some “treat-yo-self” holidaymakers who Donna needs to pick up from Larnach Castle. It could be seen as an activity in itself, since it is paid entry to even step into the gardens of “New Zealand’s only castle”. Donna makes sure to drive pretty slowly to pick up the guests (for safety reasons, obviously). We just happen to get a few quick photos along the way…

Vistas of the Otago Peninsula

Just two more pick-ups to do and we have a van of 10 people! Between pick-ups, Donna shares her wealth of knowledge on both the natural and social history of the Otago Peninsula and how it relates to the whole of New Zealand in general.

Most of the peninsula are made up of high rolling hills covered in lush grass and sheep. As the van goes over a hill, then over another, each time we are treated to another amazing vista. We stop for landscape photos looking back at the city of Dunedin, whereas the rest of the vantage points are enjoyed from behind the windows of the van – super clean windows at that! You don’t understand how important that is to mention!

Wildlife-spotting kit

Now that everyone is here, we equip ourselves with binoculars and a tick-sheet of all the wildlife that is possible to spot today, like the hardcore wildlife spotters that we are and continue along the coastal road of the Otago Peninsula.

When we are not on top of hills, we are about one metre above the still waters of inlets – the perfect environment for wading birds.

Shelducks in paradise

We can see Donna on the hunt for some birds, cautiously driving along the coastal gravel roads and slowing down at places she must have seen wildlife before. It pays off, because our first sighting on the day is a family of paradise shelducks! The chestnut-coloured female leads half a dozen of chicks along a patch of grass, while the slightly larger grey/black male is always two steps behind. After this first sighting, we have plenty more opportunities to see the paradise shelduck parade.

The blue feathers and red beak of the pukeko is not exactly an uncommon sight in New Zealand. They even like to hang out in the parks of some of the biggest cities, but they are an impressive bird to watch all the same. Their long red legs stretch over long blades of grass as they forage on the ground for food.

The world’s largest seabirds

We reach the end of the peninsula at the Royal Albatross Centre. Even a couple of hundred metres away from the headland, we can see about three huge slow-moving birds gliding in circles. It’s no wonder that we can see them, being the largest species of seabird in the world!

We have 45 minutes to enjoy the Royal Albatross Centre. First of all, Donna tells us about the Royal Albatross as they periodically swoop overhead. Then we can take the time to either get some food from the cafe, check out the exhibitions, or, as we do, stay outside to keep on watching royal albatross.

Somewhere behind this tree is a penguin nest

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Seabirds and seals from atop the coastal cliff

A walkway with platforms reveal a magnificent view of the coastal cliffs topped with a lighthouse. Kelp clings onto the rocks below as the waves try to rip them out to sea. Very far in the distance, we can see seals resting on the rocks below, too far for photos, but it just goes to show how abundant the wildlife is on the Otago Peninsula.

Our 45 minutes is up (thanks to Donna coming to get us because we got WAY too distracted), and we are heading back in the van to the more “exclusive” part of the trip…

Spoonbills and herons

Before we get there though, more wading birds are giving us a show in the super reflective inlet waters. We spot a few white-faced herons tentatively walking with their long leg in the shallow waters of the inlet. For us, we get mesmerised by the royal spoonbill. As the name suggests, it’s beak is like a spoon, yet the motion of there white-feathered birds is more like a vacuum going from side to side along the bottom of the water. They look so majestic with their plume of long white feathers covering their head and neck.

We might have taken time to see some native wading birds, but the main reason why we are all here is about to come. Bring on the penguins!

A wildlife-filled beach

Entering private land, we park up on the top of a grassy hill full of sheep and rabbits, looking down at a beautiful long-stretching white sand beach. Even from here, we can see the huge bodies of one of the world’s rarest sea lions (and frankly, the one with the most unfortunately named) the Hooker sea lion.

Spotted: The yellow-eyed penguin

Although we are thrilled to be be walking down to a beach full of sea lions, Donna is getting way too excited about something…

“A yellow-eyed penguin!” Donna says, “We don’t see them at this end of the beach! Quickly, follow me before it goes away!”

Gah, Ok, we’re excited too! Donna makes sure she stays in front of the group to keep us all in check. Ya know, excited tourists can disturb wildlife… Nevertheless, we get a much more intimate experience with the penguin than we could have ever hoped for!

We line up along the side of the foot path being as still as we can. The penguin just hops up some steps, slowly waddles past us, and continues up the grassy path we just walked down. It just doesn’t give a sh*t about us! That’s great!

The giant Hooker sea lions

Once we get out of the bush, restored by Elm Wildlife Tours for penguin conservation, we are on a beach full of sea lions. Big beasts they are! Most of them sleep covered in sand, but every now and then one will move to do something pretty fascinating to watch, whether its a fight or a sea lion regurgitating its dinner… Nice…

The penguin parade

Donna takes us along the beach, weaving in and out of the sea lions at a safe distance. We get up to a viewing box just in time to watch more penguins waddle in from the ocean. A breeding pair waddle together up the grassy hills, stopping every minute to clean themselves/have a rest. Well, we all have our excuses for resting during an uphill hike.

The next viewing box puts the icing on top of our delicious penguin cake we are getting today. Between tree branches, we have a view of a penguin nest, complete with a mother feeding two newborn chicks! How precious! We have to wipe the tears from our eyes. A camera looks into the nest from another angle so we can get a closer look at the chicks.

It’s fair to say that we have been spoiled by penguins and sea lions on this tour, but there is one last colony to see…

The seal show

Back over the hill and down the other side, we enter some more viewing boxes looking down at some rock pools and a huge seal colony! What’s more, the seals are so lively! Although there are heaps of places in New Zealand that you can spot the New Zealand fur seal, it’s very rare that you will see groups of seals playing and splashing in the water, running around after each other, two giant bulls fighting one another, and super close looks at seals having twisting and turning in their sleep. This, and all the above, makes taking a wildlife tour worth it!

Back to Dunedin

On that note, we are getting back in the van and heading back to Dunedin. Although it is a completely overcast evening, we still enjoy watching day turn into night, with the city lights giving the most stunning reflections in the water between the peninsula and the city.

Donna conveniently drops us off where she picked us up, the Chalet Backpackers, where our dreams are literally going to be filled with wildlife spotting tonight. (Laura told Robin to quickly look at the wall three times during the night).

From wildlife to chocolate, we couldn’t be having a greater leap in activities than what we are doing tomorrow. Join us when we take a tour around Cadbury World!

Shh, you will wake the sea lions!

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Want more?

After all that? Yes, we may have got a little excited when writing this lengthy blog post about wildlife… But if you want more, take a look at these articles:

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See you tomorrow!