|We finally saw some penguins on the Otago Peninsula.
Of the 18 species of penguins in the world, 17 of them are very social. They live together in groups and do everything together. When they go to sea, they first gather on the beach until they have at least 20 or more in a group. A group of penguins is called a raft. A raft of penguins can often number 100 or more. The raft then goes into the sea together. There is safety in numbers. If they are attacked by a sealion, shark or orca, it is safer to be a penguin in a group of 20 or more than it is to be in a group of only two or three and even worse to be alone.
Only one penguin species, the Yellow-eyed Penguin, is very anti-social. They do everything alone. When they are nesting, the pair make sure that they find a location that is out of sight of other penguins. When they go to sea, they do so alone. To feed, they swim out about 12 km from the shore after running the gauntlet of sealions and other predators. That far out, there are more fish and less predators.
Because they go to sea alone, their risk of being killed by predators is greater than other penguins. Only one Yellow-eyed Penguin out of three survive their first four years.
Before the Europeans arrived, New Zealand was 80% covered in forest. Today it is only 30%. The Yellow-eyed Penguins nest in the forest, not on the beach. Loss of habit is their greatest problem but they also suffer from introduced animals such as dogs, rats and opossum. Rats and opossum take eggs and chicks. Dogs will kill adult penguins just for the fun of it. Today the Yellow-eyed Penguin is an endangered species with only about 6,000 remaining. They live only around the south-east of New Zealand’s South Island and islands further south. There are none in any zoo around the world so this is the only place in the world to see them.
Today we went to a private-owned farm to see Yellow-eyed Penguins. Like most of New Zealand, when this land was first acquired, the owners cut down the trees and made the area into a farm. It is a huge farm, or station as sheep farms are called here. The current generation of owners is trying to change things. They still raise sheep, but they are turning a large part of their property back into forest. They are planting about 3,000 trees per year. So in about 30 years there should be a nice little forest here. They have started a tourism project to allow visitors to see the penguins on their property. They call it Penguin Place.
They have dug a trench system that seem like something from the First World War but without the mud. The trenches are covered with camouflage material. The trenches allow people to approach the penguins without being seen by them. At the end of each trench is a viewing hide. There are about 300 metres of trenches, all dug by hand.
They also have a penguin hospital on the property. They rehabilitate penguins and then release them into the wild.
All this is done on private property without any government funding or money from other sources. Their only source of income is the fee paid by tourists. The tour costs $49. The government does bring them sick and injured penguins but does not give any money for their care or food.
The tour starts in a classroom setting where the background history of the penguins, as explained above, is given. Then, after a short visit to see the penguin hospital, the tourists get on a small bus for a five-minute ride to the other side of the peninsula. The tour then gets off the buss and enters the trenches. After a long walk in the trench system, we came to a viewing hide. From the hide we saw three penguins quite close.
The penguins go through an annual cycle of breeding, nesting and molting. Currently they are in the molting stage. When penguins molt, their feathers fall out in patches and new ones grow in. They change the feathers of their whole body during this time. Most birds just lose one or two feathers at a time, so molting goes on all year round. For the penguins, this is done in four weeks (different times for different species). When molting, they are not waterproof and cannot go into the sea. If they cannot go into the sea, they cannot eat. So they simply stand like a statue for four weeks, barely moving. They may lay down to sleep but they move very little. As they are not eating for four weeks, they cannot expend energy by walking around or doing anything at all. After molting they have a couple of months of free time, then the cycle begins again.
When they are molting they look shabby and not like the photos of penguins that you see on TV or in books. From the hide we saw two molting penguins and one that was not molting. They all molt at this time of year but they do not all molt in the exact same time. Some may molt a week or two after others.
After seeing these three penguins, we went back into the trenches and went down to the beach. Here the family has a huge private beach on their property. We saw several NZ Fur Seals and one sealion. We were very lucky and I was thrilled to see two penguins come out of the sea and waddle up the beach and into the grass. They had just returned from a day of fishing. First one came and then the other, they were not together. It was a rare and wonderful sight and the best thing I have seen so far on my tour of New Zealand.
A great day.