We must go down to the sea again: in search of Hector’s Dolphins

27 November 2019

Many of our best experiences during this visit to New Zealand have happened when we’ve taken boat trips to get up close to marine mammals and seabirds, so it seems only fitting that we spend our last afternoon in the country out on the sea. Our main target is to see some Hector’s Dolphins, the smallest of all dolphin species, but hopefully there will be good views of birds and the coastline, and maybe even a fur seal or two.

As we board our little boat we’re greeted by Buster, the skipper’s dog, kitted out in his bright orange life vest. We learn that he loves his daily voyage, and gets very excited when dolphins are spotted. On at least four occasions the cry of “dog overboard” has been raised, but each time he’s been fished out with nothing injured other than his dignity.

Heading out from Akaroa we spot some White-fronted Terns keeping pace with the boat. We’re pleased to see them, but there’s no time to hang around – we have to find ourselves some dolphins.

We make our way out along Akaroa Harbour, which is flanked by steep, rocky cliffs, some cut by picturesque arches and windows. The skipper takes us in close enough for photos, all the time keeping his eyes peeled for dolphins. Meanwhile Buster’s getting bored, and works his way around the passengers, making new friends wherever he goes.

Before too long the skipper finds what we’re all hoping to see. Hector’s Dolphins are unique to New Zealand, and are classed as “nationally endangered”, with their population thought to be around 10,000. Banks Peninsula as a whole is home to around 1,000 of them, three or four of which have made themselves known to us.

These are the smallest of any dolphin species, adult females measuring no more than 1.4m (4 feet 7 inches) and weighing in at up to 60kg (132 lbs). Males are a little smaller and lighter. At birth, calves are just 60-80cm (24 to 31 inches) long and weigh 8-10kg (18 to 22 lbs). They’re said to look like a rugby ball with flippers, which I guess is just the sort of description that you’d expect New Zealanders to come up with!

To their credit, successive New Zealand governments have worked hard to protect the Hector’s Dolphin. Measures taken include the establishment of the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary in 1988, and the introduction in 1992 of the Marine Mammals Protection Regulations to regulate marine mammal tourism activities.

The dolphins swim up to the boat, follow alongside us for a while and dive repeatedly beneath our hull. They are fast-moving and can disappear below the waves in the blink of an eye. However they’re definitely less confiding, and therefore a lot more challenging, than the Dusky Dolphins that we saw earlier in our travels. Mrs P’s taking photos and I’m on video duty, and we both end up with more images of empty sea than of the dolphins themselves.

Eventually the dolphins get fed up, and swim off to amuse themselves elsewhere. But our fun’s not over yet. As we head back towards Akaroa town we’re pleased to see our old friend the Pied Shag, a handsome bird with dazzling undersides and bright blue eyes.

We soon spot another old friend hauled out on the rocks. The New Zealand Fur Seal has been a regular companion throughout our six weeks in the country, and today’s no exception. They’ve bounced back from the verge of extinction, and – as we’ve discovered – can now be found all around the New Zealand coastline.

Just a few hundred metres from the fur seals is a colony of Spotted Shags. They’re less striking than their cousin the Pied Shag, but nevertheless a good bird to see. The captain gives us a couple of minutes to admire them and then continues on towards our home port, where we must bid a fond farewell to the ebullient Buster.

Mrs P and I have mixed feelings. It’s been another great boat trip, and the elusive, super-speedy Hector’s Dolphins have been something special. Not to mention Buster, who is also pretty damned cute. But this will be the last excursion we will ever take in New Zealand, because tomorrow we’re heading off to Christchurch to catch our flight back to the UK.

Loving the birds, spreading the word (Part 2: Penguins again)

22 November 2019

Having filled our birding boots at the Royal Albatross Centre, we head off for another special treat: penguins. Everyone loves a penguin: improbable, comical, cute, even iconic, and amongst the non-birders on the bus – that’s everyone except us, it seems – there’s a palpable sense of anticipation as we set off.

Fur seal, posing like a mermaid

Although we’ve been in New Zealand several weeks and seen all three species of penguin that breed here, we’re looking forward to meeting up with some of them again. I mean, you really can’t see enough penguins, can you? And also, our only previous view of the rarest of them all – the Yellow-eyed Penguin – was disappointingly distant, so we’re hoping to do better this time.

The company we’ve booked with has a private reserve on the Otago Peninsula. Our bus first takes us to a cliff-top, from where we scramble down a short but steep path to take a look at a bunch of fur seals. Some cavort in the water and pose like mermaids, while others stand proud on the rocks, masters of all they survey.

New Zealand Fur Seals have recovered well from the predations of the nineteenth century sealers, who almost drove them to extinction. Although we’ve seen them several times previously around South Island it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance once again.

Fur seal standing proud, master of all he surveys

But we have to tear ourselves away, and make our way down to the beach if we’re to see the penguins. Trouble is, the path is long and way too steep for us to cope with, given the condition of our backs, hips and knees, which have deteriorated markedly in recent days. No question, at the end of this holiday we’re going to need a bloody good rest.

Mrs P has been anxious for a while about not being able to make it down to see the penguins at all , so yesterday she phoned the tour company and explained our predicament. To their credit, Elm Wildlife Tours came up with a brilliant solution. They’ve laid on an extra-powerful bus, with loads of torque and grunt, that can drive most of the way down, and – more importantly – back up the murderous incline.

Our guide explains the new arrangements to the group, and although a few mad fools decide the walk will do them good many others join us in the bus. A few minutes later we’ve made it to within spitting distance of the beach, and disembark feeling rested and in good spirits. The weary foot-soldiers arrive a few minutes later, breathing hard, sweating profusely, glowing crimson. Serves ’em right, I say!

Little Blue Penguin in an artificial burrow, partly obscured by a random piece of dead vegetation

We make our way down to the beach and happen across an artificial burrow strategically placed to attract Little Blue Penguins. These guys are found in small numbers around much of the New Zealand coastline. They rarely move on land during the daylight hours, so the best chance of seeing them on terra firma is after dark, as we did about ten days ago on Stewart Island, or maybe – if you’re very, very lucky – in the entrance to their burrows during the daytime.

But to see inside a Little Blue Penguin burrow you get down low, until your chin is almost scraping the ground. I don’t even bother – I’ll never be able to get up again – but Mrs P’s willing to get down and dirty in pursuit of a penguin. And yes, she spots one, watching her grumpily as she lines up to take a photograph. Annoyingly, a random piece of dead vegetation gets in the way, and Mrs P can’t move it for fear of upsetting the penguin. But never mind, it’s an interesting shot even if it won’t win any prizes.

The penguin hide

We walk along the beach a few hundred yards, then inland slightly to a small hide – or blind, as Americans would call it – positioned to overlook the route that Yellow-eyed Penguins take on the way to and from their nests. The hide is modest in construction but will serve its purpose: it gives good views out towards the beach and the penguins’ regular route inland, while hiding us from sight. It’s late afternoon now, about the time they start moving about on land, so we settle back and wait for the fun to begin.

He’s full of determination, hopping between boulders and scrambling through the long grass

And sure enough, as we scan the hillside that rises up from the beach we spot one. The slope’s steep, but he doesn’t seem bothered by it. Somewhere up there, hidden in the undergrowth, he must have a nest where his chicks are waiting for their next feed.

He stops to preen, removing stray seeds and strands of grass from his feathers

He’s full of determination, hopping between boulders and scrambling through the long grass, hauling himself along with his bill when the going gets tough. If he had teeth, he’d be gritting them. Once or twice he stops to preen himself, removing stray seeds and strands of grass from his feathers. But he doesn’t delay for long: his family needs him.

Finally he approaches the crest of the hill. He turns and looks back at the route he’s taken, the route he takes regularly so that his chicks get a decent meal every day. But there’s no time to admire the view, he still has a distance to travel. At last he makes it to the top. His nest must be there somewhere over the brow of the hill, his family waiting patiently for the Great Provider to return. Our hero continues grittily onwards and disappears from view, never to be seen again.

Almost at the top

With a mixture of emotions – admiration at the lone penguin’s courage and endurance, sadness at his leaving us – we turn our attention back to the shoreline. Will another penguin show himself before we have to go back to the bus?

It seems there’s nothing of interest out there, just waves crashing into the rocks and surging up the sandy beach. We’re all scanning carefully, more in hope than expectation. It’s a penguin-free zone, but then we spot a different and altogether more sinister animal instead.

A sealion, strutting the sands as if he owns the place

A sealion has hauled out, and is now strutting the sands as if he owns the place. He’s right, I guess, sealions are formidable creatures, the apex predators hereabouts. Worryingly, penguins feature in his diet, and if one shows itself now it may well end up on today’s menu. OK, I know, life’s hard and sealions have to eat. Of course they do, but not penguins and not on my watch, please.

We feel conflicted. We badly want to see another penguin, but at the same time worry that if one turns up its blood and guts will be all over the sand within minutes. Time stands still for a while. The sealion watches and waits, and so do we, listening to the steady rhythm of the waves slapping into the sand.

He hauls himself upright, shakes the excess water from his feathers and begins to waddle up the beach

And then we spot him, another penguin in the surf. He’s battling to reach the beach without being smashed into the rocks that are scattered along it. Finally a wave drives him between the boulders and shoves him belly-first into the sand in an undignified heap. He hauls himself upright, shakes the excess water from his feathers, and begins to waddle up the beach.

The penguin isn’t heading directly for the sealion, but his route will take him too close. Once the sealion spots him it’s curtains: a sealion on land can move surprisingly swiftly; a penguin can’t. We all watch, transfixed, waiting to see how the story will play out, fearing the worst but hoping for the best.

Suddenly the penguin stops dead in his tracks and studies the way ahead. He’s obviously detected the sealion’s presence, and in a second he’s turned 180 degrees and is hot-footing it back to the safety of the sea. We all heave a sigh of relief, and start to relax.

It seem like Mission Impossible, but just when we need him Tom Cruise is nowhere to be seen

Too soon. The penguin is on a mission, his chicks need feeding so he’s got to find a way past his enemy. He re-emerges from the sea, some distance from his previous landfall, and heads for the safety on the grassy hill beyond the beach. But once again he’s too close to the sealion, and turns back.

We can hardly bear to watch. The longer it goes on the more certain we are that it will end badly, at least from the penguin’s perspective. It seems like he’s on Mission Impossible, only just when we need him Tom Cruise is nowhere to be seen.

But at last, after what seems like an eternity, the penguin finds a path that will take him to his destination without drawing the attention of the sealion. We watch for minute after agonising minute until at last he’s made it, and heads off into the long grass.

We all heave a sigh of relief. We’re emotional wrecks, but at least there was a fairy tale ending. It’s time to walk back along the beach and return to the bus.

Watching the birdie

However there’s one last treat in store us. While we’ve been watching the drama unfold at one end of the beach, at the other a third penguin has taken his chance to make a run for the nest site. He’s made it over the sand to the grass beyond.

A fence-line blocks the way into some low bushes where he’s probably hidden his nest, and he has to work his way along it until he finds a gap. As he does we get a perfect view of him. The Yellow-eyed Penguin is the rarest penguin in the world, and we feel privileged to get such a perfect sighting.

To end the day, a perfect sighting of a Yellow-eyed Penguin

And as this wonderful bird disappears into the undergrowth, the day draws to a close. We’ve had a great time, and so too have the first-time birders who’ve been caught up in the life and death drama of a penguin on an unremarkable beach in a remote corner of New Zealand’s South Island. Hopefully a few of them have caught the birding bug, and will soon be as passionate about it as we are.

The Catlins: a hidden gem

20 November 2019

The Captivating Catlins is a “hidden gem”.  A place of natural beauty, abundant wildlife, forests, sandy beaches, waterfalls and both hilly and rolling green farmland. With its comparative remoteness and stunning vistas, it’s a great destination.

SOURCE: The Official Website of the Catlins, retrieved 19 December 2019

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? As a general rule I treat the outpourings of the marketing profession with grave suspicion, given that the only reason for their existence appears to be to separate me from my hard-earned cash. But on this occasion they’ve got a point: the Catlins really is something special.

Already we’ve visited several spectacular waterfalls and a petrified forest, and spotted – albeit at some distance – the world’s rarest penguin, but there’s still lots more to explore.

Kaka Point, in the Catlins

We’re staying at Kaka Point, overlooking a sweeping bay of golden, wave-pounded sand which is totally deserted save for a pair of Variable Oystercatchers.

Variable Oystercatcher

Oystercatchers tend to be underrated, so I pop down to the beach and pay my respects. They are probing the strandline with their improbable orange bills, seeking out lunch. The birds keep a wary eye on me, screaming and yelling abuse if I get too close, twice pulling the broken wing stunt to lure me away, even flying straight at my head if I appear to be encroaching on their territory. I love these birds for their argumentative feistiness, for their utter determination to show me that I am simply an unwelcome visitor in their domain.

Approaching Nugget Point. The lighhouse is just visible

A little way along the road from Kaka Point is Nugget Point, a headland boasting a lighthouse dating from 1869-70. The lighthouse is agreeably picturesque without being exceptional, and has operated automatically – without the need for a lighthouse keeper to live on site – since 1989.

Nugget Point lighthouse, built 1869/70

The views from the base of the lighthouse are more interesting than the structure itself. Wave-eroded rocks, which those who know about such things have likened to the shape of gold nuggets, can be seen from the viewing platform. A small colony of fur seals lives here, and we’re pleased to see one lazily exploring the kelp, occasionally blowing bubbles as it does so.

A fur seal works its way along a line of kelp at Nugget Point

We’ve seen plenty of fur seals on our New Zealand expedition but still hanker after decent views of their larger, fiercer cousin, the sealion. There’s a good chance of seeing one along the coast at Surat Bay, so we decide to investigate.

Tropical paradise? No, Surat Bay in the Catlins, on New Zealand’s South Island

When we arrive the tide is some way out, exposing another vast, deserted sandy beach. It could almost be a tropical paradise, until a blast of cold wind reminds us we’re closer to the Antarctic than to the equator.

The tide rushes in at Surat Bay

The tide rushes in as we watch, submerging most of the beach in a shallow film of water. There’s no sign of sealions here, but we spot a young couple walking towards us from further along the bay and ask if they’ve encountered any. They’re French, with only limited English, but the girl talks excitedly about un magnifique lion de mer which is blocking the track just a few hundred metres away. It sounds perfect, so we quicken our pace, determined to find the animal before it buggers off for a swim.

Dozing sealion, Surat Bay

In the event, when we find him it’s evident this guy is going nowhere anytime soon. He’s hauled up at the edge of the sand dunes, just above the high water mark. The animal is huge, much larger than the biggest fur seal we’ve come across in New Zealand. Sealions can reach up to a massive 500 kilograms and are therefore not to be trifled with.

The New Zealand Sealion (formerly called Hooker’s Sealion) is the world’s rarest sealion species. Most live and breed in the sub-Antarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands where they number about 12,000. Fewer than 200 can be found on the mainland, all in this area of the southeast coast where they have only recently started to breed.

Our sealion is dozing peacefully, occasionally flicking sand across his back, presumably to deter the biting insects for which this country is rightly infamous. We’re delighted with our find, but content to admire him from a distance. Sealions are notoriously aggressive if disturbed, and are rumoured to have an impressive turn of speed despite their corpulent build. I, for one, am not interested in testing whether or not the rumours are true.

Heading south: seals, pancake rocks and a lighthouse

4 November 2019

Bidding a fond farewell to the Omau Settlers Lodge and resisting the urge to kidnap Alfred the Great – see my previous post! – we nip along to the nearby beach to admire the striking rock formations.

Then it’s up to the nearby cliffs for a look at the Cape Foulwind lighthouse.  Although there’s been a lighthouse here since 1876, the current building dates from 50 years later when the keepers were laid off and operations automated.  But there’s little romance in an automated, concrete-towered lighthouse, so we quickly move on to something of more interest: the fur seal colony at Tauranga Bay, just a couple of miles up the coast.

We’ve already seen many more fur seals on this trip than I’d expected.  It’s reckoned that before the ancestors of the Maori arrived in the thirteenth century, the islands that now make up New Zealand were home to around 3 million fur seals.   The new arrivals were dedicated seal hunters and by the time of Captain Cook’s arrival in the late 18th century there were an estimated 1.5m-1.8m seals left, about a 40% decline.

That loss was nothing compared to the effect of European sealing, which peaked between about 1790-1820.  It’s estimated that this new wave of sealing activity reduced the population to about 10,000 animals, or about 0.4 % of the pre-human population.

Today, the Department of Conservation estimates the country’s fur seal population is about 200,000 animals, about 5% – 10% of pre-human numbers.  By any standards this is a remarkable recovery, and we’re pleased to enjoy the consequence of this at Tauranga Bay, where there are plenty of good-looking fur seals strutting their stuff.

But we haven’t done with coastal scenery as we head off to visit Pancake Rocks.  These are the centrepiece of Paparoa National Park, which is famed for its variety of stunning landscapes.

The Pancake Rocks are layered limestone formations dating back 30 million years, when layers of lime rich mud were deposited on the seabed and then overlain with weaker sheets of soft mud and clay.  The seabed was slowly tilted and raised to form coastal cliffs, and wind and water have etched out the soft layers to produce the unmistakable “stack of pancakes” effect.

The result is a bizarre, fascinating landscape which is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  Even better there are plenty of birds passing the time of day, sitting on the rocks or whizzing swiftly between them.  Mrs P manages to capture an image of a Caspian Tern heading off, probably in search of lunch.

New Zealand has 15,000 kilometres of coastline, supposedly the ninth longest of any country.  Today we’ve been treated to some of its best bits, and as we head towards the famous Fiordlands on the south-west of South Island it should get even better … and even wetter. 

It’s a rainforest down there and the clue, as they say, is in the word “rain.”  Good job we’ve packed our rain gear.

Kaikoura: earthquakes, seals and Marmite misery

30 October 2019

We’re spending our three nights in Kaikoura in an upmarket B&B, or “homestay” as they call it in these parts. Our room faces a soaring, snow-capped mountain, and is a haven of peace and tranquillity.

It wasn’t always this way. We ask our host, Neal, about the Great Kaikoura Earthquake, that struck almost three years ago, on 14 November 2016. At a magnitude of 7.8 it was the second largest earthquake ever recorded in New Zealand, and inevitably caused major damage and disruption.

Neal explains that Kaikoura was totally cut off by road for several weeks, and although the main State Highway 1 running south was re-opened a few days before Christmas it took a further 12 months for the same Highway to be opened again to the north of the town. These were dark days for Kaikoura, but Neal notes that it brought out the best in people, who all rallied around one another at this time of greatest need.

But worst of all for Kiwis up and down the country, the earthquake resulted in the untimely demise of the Kaikoura-based New Zealand Marmite factory. This was widely regarded as a national tragedy, and was the catalyst for some unspeakable displays of anti-social behaviour whereby a few disreputable individuals quickly worked out what the earthquake meant for their favourite savoury spread and bought up as many jars as they could carry.

Marmite hoarding did not become a capital offence, but from what we’ve been told, many die-hard lovers of the sticky, salty, dark brown food paste would have voted for just that in a referendum.

Some smart-arses proposed that this was a good time for more Kiwis to embrace Vegemite, the Australian alternative to Marmite. However this was widely ridiculed: after all, the die-hards asked, what true-blooded Kiwi would ever willingly insert anything Australian into their mouths?

Neal is an ex-pat Brit who’s lived in New Zealand for nearly a decade. We ask him if earthquakes and Marmite wars haven’t made him question his decision to move here. But no, he, like every other ex-pat Brit we’ve met since arriving here, has no regrets. New Zealand has a future but the UK, it seems, has only a past, so it’s time to bid farewell to the Mother Country and move on.

We bid farewell to Neal and head north. In Kaikoura itself there are no obvious signs of the earthquake, but once we’re outside the town the impact becomes more obvious. State Highway 1 is still under repair at various places, and we limp painstakingly from one set of temporary traffic lights to the next. It will be another year before the work is done, but although the delay is a bit frustrating you can’t help but admire the progress that’s been made since the devastating events of November 2016.

It wasn’t only the humans who suffered because of the earthquake: young New Zealand Fur Seals also found their lives disrupted. Close to Ohau Point, young seals used to swim from the sea upstream to a pool at the foot of a waterfall where they would cavort and play, much to joy of the tourists who would go there in droves to watch the action.

The earthquakes put a stop to all that. Fortunately, however, the seals still gather on the rocky shoreline at Ohau, where plenty of parking and a massive viewing platform have been provided for tourists who want to watch them. I find it encouraging that at a time when so much needs to be repaired, the authorities are still willing to invest in eco-tourism, confirmation perhaps of this country’s green credentials

We break our journey at Ohau to savour the fruits of the investment and are delighted to see dozens – perhaps hundreds – of seals lounging, and occasionally squabbling on the rocks and in the rock pools. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries European sealers drove the New Zealand Fur Seal close to extinction, but with the outlawing of seal hunting numbers are recovering.

We’re also pleased to be able to see some shags nesting on of the rocky outcrops

Despite the sickening sealing industry of two centuries ago, and the more recent tragedy of the Great Kaikoura Earthquake, the fortunes of the New Zealand Fur Seal are clearly improving.

It’s great to witness this inspiring example of nature fighting back.

Farewell North Island, g’day South Island

27 October 2019

After 3 days in Auckland and a further 11 days on the road, during which period we drove 1,913 kilometres, it’s time for us to leave North Island. From our boutique hotel accommodation at Bushy Park we drive for about 90 minutes to the airport at Palmerston North.

On the way we pass through the town of Bulls, which boasts several life size representations of the animal in question modelled out of resin or bronze or whatever. And there’s also a large sign bearing the legend: “Bulls, there’s no udder place like it!” I’m easily amused, so that pun makes my day.

The flight to Christchurch in the South Island takes about an hour. The weather is fine and visibility is good, so Mrs P takes full advantage of her window seat and snaps away merrily at the snow clad mountains and rugged coastline, and the distinctively shaped Kaikoura peninsula.

Christchurch airport is remarkably efficient, and within a few minutes of landing we’ve picked up the second Toyota Camry of our trip, and head north towards Kaikoura, the very place over which we were flying less than an hour ago.

The outskirts of Christchurch have little to recommend them, but as we move further north the traffic thins out and the landscape gets more interesting. The weather is almost perfect, and the gales and torrential rain of North Island already seem like a distant memory.

The black sandy beaches are alien to our eyes, but strangely atmospheric. Not an obvious choice for a beach holiday, but that’s not why Mrs P and I are here.

The late afternoon light illuminates the towering Cathedral Cliffs at Gore Bay, on the approach to Kaikoura. Unusually these are inland cliffs, facing away from the sea, and the rock columns remind us of the pipes of a monstrous church organ.

On the outskirts of Kaikoura we call in at Peninsula Point. Rocks of all shapes and sizes rise out of the sea. Behind, we can see the snow-capped mountains over which we were flying just a few hours ago. This place is so picturesque; all it needs is a fur seal or two and it would be perfect.

And there he is, our first fur seal, lounging lazily on the rocks. Wild mammals were thin on the ground in North Island, and we’re hoping for better things on South Island. If Peninsula Point is anything to go by, we won’t be disappointed.

I think I’m going to like this place.