Flax bushes rustle and murmur in the cold, windy air. The view from the top of Sandy Mount is panoramic: well worth the steep trails and chapped cheeks. Below, the harbor cradles the sea. Cupped between folded green hills, indented by numerous bays and inlets, New Zealand's Otago Peninsula is a place where earth and sky embrace in a watery hug.
Running parallel to the mainland for 12 windy miles (20 kilometers), with a maximum width of 6 miles (9 km), the Otago Peninsula is a long finger of land on the southeastern coast of the South Island. Formed over 10 million years ago, the entire peninsula is the eroded remnants of a massive shield volcano that once existed here. Indeed, the harbor is the collapsed, flooded out caldera (the circular depression that forms at the summit of a volcano after an eruption empties the magma chamber below).
Today it is known unofficially as the wildlife capital of New Zealand. Diverse topography and proximity to both harbors and beaches make this a wildlife lover's dream, a place where rare and unusual creatures congregate at the edge of a vast watery wilderness.
I watch the surf zone expectantly. The cadence of the waves crashing on the beach is peaceful, almost lulling me to sleep. Then something in the surf suddenly catches my eye. As I look through the gathering twilight, a penguin emerges. Soon more follow, waddling up the beach like alien visitors from another world.
Penguins truly are like visitors from another world the sea world. These birds became so good at diving for their food that they eventually lost the ability to fly. Instead, they evolved short, powerful flippers and large, heavy bodies to dive deeply. A streamlined, football-like shape helps for fast swimming while insulating feathers keep them warm.
Penguins only live in the Southern Hemisphere, concentrated primarily around cold, rich seas, especially those off Antarctica. New Zealand has the world's most diverse penguin population, with six species found there, including these yellow-eyed penguins. With an estimated population around 4,000, they are considered one of the rarest penguins in the world.
Walking a pasture trail to the beach I'm surprised to find, of all things, a penguin sunbathing in the grass. I back up and walk around giving him a wide berth. He regards me indifferently with his tell-tale yellow eye. Penguins and sheep mixing in the same pasture. Only in a place like New Zealand!
Yellow-eyed penguins (Megadyptes antipodes), unlike most Antarctic penguins, are not colonial nesters. It is thought that nesting on the densely forested coastlines of New Zealand selected against the evolution of communal breeding in yellow-eyes simply because it was too difficult for them to find one another.
Since the arrival of humans to New Zealand's shores, dense, native forests have been replaced by open pasture. With the demise of their breeding habitat and the introduction of mammalian predators, yellow-eyed penguins have declined dramatically. Here on the Otago Peninsula, collaboration between farmers and conservationists protects some of the last yellow-eyed penguins on the mainland by restoring the native bush they need in order to breed and succeed.
Beachcombing the long, sandy ribbon of Allen's Beach one fine day, I almost stumble over a pair of sea lions. It is a mother and pup. They barely wake up as I approach, blinking lazily and shifting position in the sand. As I watch, a plump pup suckles milk from the mother before dozing off again. Just like a baby.
It is hard to believe this pup could grow to be over 904 pounds (410 kilograms) and 10 feet (3 meters) long as an adult male sea lion. Females like this one on the right are half that size. New Zealand sea lions, or Hooker's sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri), sit near the top of the food chain. Like their namesake, mature males sport a shaggy mane and the belligerent, fearless air of a lion.
This fearlessness made them easy targets for humans. Like many seals the world over, once numerous and widespread, they were hunted nearly to extinction. Today New Zealand sea lions are protected, but have yet to fully recover. With a population estimated to be around 9,000 worldwide, they are the world's rarest and most endangered sea lion.
Plaintive cries, shrieks and groans fill the air and ricochet off the rock walls. Tumbled boulders lie strewn below the cliffs and hemmed in by the sea. In full sight but almost camouflaged, dozens of fur seals lie draped over the rocks. With one foot on rocky ground and the other in the sea, I am in the midst of a colony.
Close to 25 million years ago, bear-like land animals began to return to the sea. There was so much food that they stayed. Over time they evolved flippers for swimming, a layer of fat for insulation, a sleek, streamlined body and the ability to dive deeply and stay underwater for long periods. Their descendants are seals.
With some of the densest fur in the animal kingdom, the New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) is aptly named. Fur seals also have the distinction of having the longest whiskers in the animal kingdom. Highly sensitive and filled with liquid, the whiskers are use like sonar devices to detect vibrations of fish and squid in the murky depths. Unlike New Zealand sea lions, fur seals have rebounded and are widely found along New Zealand and the southern coasts of Australian.
Like a herd of mustangs, a group of wild bottlenose dolphins seem to gallop into the harbor from the open sea. I lean over the front of the boat watching them cavort in and out of our bow waves. Their shadowy shapes drift in and out of view. Some jump high out of the water eying me. My ears fill with their squeaky, clicking speech, as they chatter away to one another.
Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncates) are one of the most common and widespread dolphin species in the world. They are also one of the most intelligent animals that we know of, communicating through squeaks, whistles and tail splashing.
Like us they are very social and live in groups of between 10 and 30 individuals. In these cold, southern waters, the surface-to-volume ratio of their bodies matters for retaining heat. Averaging around 10-13 feet (3-4 meters), these bottlenose dolphins are huge. In contrast, bottlenose dolphins in warmer, sub-tropical climates average around 8 feet (2.5 m), or about half the size of their cold water-dwelling cousins.
The sea is mysterious: You never know what lies beneath and strange creatures can surface unbidden. Sometimes, they seem like silky phantoms, Hector's dolphins appear like magic around the boat. Disappearing in and out of the depths, they watch us as we watch them, both curious about the other.
These Hector's dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori), along with their North Island counterpart, Maui's dolphin, are endemic to New Zealand waters and found nowhere else. They are the rarest dolphins in the world and the smallest. Measuring only 4-5.25 feet (1.2-1.6 meters) and weighing 88-132 pounds (40-60 kilograms), they are pipsqueaks compared to the bottlenose.
Living in small groups, Hector's dolphins forage in the near-shore, coastal waters of the South Island for fish and squid. Colored in silky grays, whites and blacks and sporting a distinctly rounded dorsal fin, they are wholly unique. Like unexpected good luck, though I often look for them, it is always they who find me if they are in the mood to play.
Squinting over stormy seas, a black, boomerang-like shape zigzags above the waves. As it comes closer, I can see it is an albatross. Like a stealth plane it glides effortlessly less than a meter over the swells in the almost gale-force winds. Passing close along the bow, its enormous wings dwarf me. As it passes it looks me dead in the eye. I can almost swear it winked. Almost.
Albatross have long been birds of myth and folklore. Representative of both the bad luck of coming storms and the good luck of favorable winds, to sailors they are the masters of the oceans. With wing spans measuring over 10 feet (3 meters) across, they are made for riding the Roaring Forties, Furious Fifties, and Screaming Sixties: the Albatross latitudes.
This Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi) may live to be over 50 years old, rivaling the life span of humans. With lives spent wandering over the wild, windy oceans I can't help but imagine what things they have seen, what stories they could tell.
The boat rocks gently in the offshore swells as we silently watch a group of Northern Royal Albatross. The birds touch bills and nuzzle one another. One spreads its enormous wings while raising its head triumphantly and sky calling. The others respond in clacking crescendos. It is a scene that feels ancient and primordial.
These juvenile Northern Royals are having a party. Scientifically speaking, that is the term given for these gatherings. Like teenagers the world over, these young birds (between 1 and 5 years old) congregate to socialize, flirt and show off their stuff to prospective mates an albatross disco, if you will.
Once a pair has bonded, they will mate for life and raise an egg together every other year. With an albatross spending its life wandering the wild southern oceans, you would normally have to chart an expedition to see the remote and barren islands where they breed. The colony here at Taiaroa Head, at the very tip of the Otago Peninsula, is the only mainland albatross breeding colony on Earth.
The cry of gulls animates the air. Chevrons of spotted shags cruise by in V-shaped formations. Enormous silhouettes of giant albatross pass like shadows overhead as fur seals loll blissfully in the waves. Like the swaying kelp, life on the Otago Peninsula swirls in rhythm to the timeless ebb and flow of the tides.
Surrounded by the boundless ocean, New Zealand, like many countries still, was slow to realize that the ocean and its riches were not boundless. Rather, the fish, birds and marine mammals that make this marine environment so rich are also quite fragile.
Following early decades of exploitation and the near extinction of many species, including seals and whales, New Zealand in the 1970's began protecting its sea life and putting conservation measures in place to conserve the marine environment. Since then many species have rebounded. Like the ebb and flow of the tides, human attitudes towards nature are constantly changing. Here on the Otago Peninsula that tidal shift has brought a consciousness towards conservation.
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