It didn’t stop raining as we entered the Catlins. We drove down a few kilometers of wet gravel road to reach a huge campground in a remote, inhabited area. Finally we arrived at Curio Bay, home to the iconic yellow-eyed penguins of New Zealand.
We pitched our tent near the flax bushes and set out for a walk before the night fall. Up until that point, none of us really knew where the penguins might show up, so it was a good idea to get ourselves familiar with the place. Following the signboard, we reached the fossilized forests and fortunately met a guy who claimed that he had seen penguins several times. Yellow-eyed penguins would spend all day feeding in the ocean and only return here at dusk to feed the chicks, he said. So I told G, “we need to stick with this guy”. We had our raincoat on, a ‘shelter’ to hide and some nuts to calm our roaring stomachs. That was more than enough. We joined a few more people to wait under the wooden bridge as the rain kept falling.
One hour passed by. Then another hour. The penguin didn’t appear until 8:30pm when the light had become nearly murky. But God knows how much joy we felt when the little bird slowly waddled through the rocky shore. This one was male, we were told. He was a little smaller than expected, about half a meter tall, with pinkish feet and of course yellow eyes. The penguin was a little cautious, noticing that he had some uninvited visitors. He stopped every few steps to preen the feathers. Sometimes he made a short high sound, probably to inform the mate and chicks of his return. In fact his nest was only a few meters from where we were, but we didn’t learn the fact until a local asked us to move away. Poor the bird, our presence might have intimidated him, as he went straight to the nest once the route became clear. The whole process took him fifteen minutes or so.
Unlike the yellow-eyed penguins, NZ sea lions didn’t mind being center of the universe. We met one of them earlier that day in the sand dune north of Waipapa Point lighthouse, and then several others during the trip. Most of the time, sea lions were asleep, covering themselves with sand and staying motionless. They seemed to be aware of the surroundings but barely made any interactions with human, although at times they would slightly roll the fat chubby body as if to imply they were a living thing. So, excited as we were, the sightings of sea lion were short because of their ‘leave-me-alone’ attitude.
Fur seals were probably the most social marine animals, and naturally gave us the most lively shots. However, we didn’t have any encounter with them until moving north the Pacific ocean to Otago peninsula. Victoria beach was a lovely one. To get there, we needed to cross a vast yellow grassland of Okia reserve, only half an hour drive from Dunedin CBD, and walked through a bit of narrow dirt road that led to the shore. Again, we didn’t expect anything and just completely enjoyed the coastal walks, so any sighting of sea life would then become a sweet surprise. G spotted a seal from afar as the mammal was ‘walking’ ashore, then I noticed another, and so many others came to our sight as we walked closer to the rocky shoreline. New Zealand fur seals were timid and, once noticing people, they would hide themselves behind the nest or run back to the ocean. So we chose to observe them from afar and minimised any interactions with the mammals. It was simply fun to watch them play, sleep, and enjoy themselves in their own home.
Allans beach was just 10 mins drive away and a bit more touristy, but there seemed to be a bigger population of NZ native marine life. One thing that struck me though, was the timid look on the face of the yellow-eyed penguin in Curio Bay, and another one on the cliff of Allans beach. A late return home means the penguin parent would start digesting some food in their stomach, their chicks would be underfed and have less chances of survival. In fact, NZ’s yellow-eyed penguins have been listed as critically endangered animals, with human disturbance being one of the major causes. Are we human, with tremendous curiosity, are encroaching too much on their habitat? Aren’t we to blame for their stress, which leads to poorer breeding performance and ultimately drive them to the brink of extinction? It’s heart-breaking just to think about the consequences of our actions.
(*) Photo courtesy of G.