The New Zealand Yellow Eyed Penguin is one special little guy. With under 5000 in the wild (a majority living on the Auckland and Campbell Islands) and as little as 250 breeding pairs sparsely dotted along the rugged East Otago Coast, it is a rare treat to get up close and personal with the rarest penguin in the world. But that is exactly what I have been fortunate enough to do.
One of our guides, Mel is studying these unique penguins. Part of Mel’s work has involved attaching un-intrusive tracking devices to these unique creatures in order to better understand their habits while on the move at sea. Analysing such data is destined to play an integral part in ensuring these penguins are here for future generations to appreciate.
Today, two Back to Nature Tour guides are volunteering in the fading afternoon light to aid Mel (another Back to Nature Tours guide) in gently ‘gathering’ one particular penguin so that his tracking device may be removed. From here important information will be retrieved and analysed. We decide to name our new penguin amigo ‘Bob’, and the plan is to wait patiently until Bob comes back from the Pacific Ocean to unite with his mate and hopefully have his tracking device removed.
The plan is to lie in wait in the scrubby flora growing upon a cliff-like incline until Bob decides to make an appearance onto the shore. From this point, if we stay hidden, then all things going well, Bob will deftly hop up the cliff to where he will most likely wait out his moult (about a one month period where old feathers are shed and new ones are replaced courtesy of Mother Nature). Penguins are most vulnerable during the moulting season, which is one reason why dog owners need to ensure their canines are kept securely on leads if walking them along the beach.
Under Mel’s guidance, like penguin- seeking navy seals we strategically spread out to wait. If one of us should spot a penguin then a low ‘coo-wee’ should be sounded to alert the others that we have the said penguin in our midst. I am expecting quite a few hours to pass by while we wait, but unbelievably we are waiting for less than 5 mins before Bob graces us with his presence! Moving as quietly and as quickly as we are can, we encircle our aquatic bird friend until Mel is able to catch him and gently wrap him in a fabric collar-like garment so that he doesn’t flail around and hurt himself (or others) while having his transmitter removed. Once safely under wraps in the latest penguin couture, Bob looks suitably miffed, but by the same token resigned to the fact that this is reality for now. Perhaps he has a penguin memory of the transmitter being attached and on some sentient level comprehends that this similar ordeal will be over relatively quickly.
Weighing in at over 7kgs, Bob is a BIG boy. Someone has obviously been pigging out while at sea. This feasting (mainly Red/Blue Cod and Arrow Squid) is required to prepare for the upcoming moulting period, during which time Bob will be unable to hunt. (Not that I was expecting a bag of Blue bird chips to be tucked under his little wing, but a month on land with no snacks seems a bit harsh).
While another in our group carefully holds onto Bob, Mel painlessly removes Bob’s transmitter and Bob swiftly ambles away to beneath a nearby shrub where his mate anxiously awaits. It is now that I understand why the Maori name for the Yellow Eyed Penguin is ‘Hoiho’ or ‘noise shouter’ – Bob and Mrs. Bob reunite with quite a song and dance! One of us jokes that what Bob is saying in penguin speak is ‘Hi honey – I’m home.’ Judging by Mrs. Bob’s unimpressed reply I’m guessing there are some penguin expletives involved on her behalf..
Our group quietly observe the penguin couple while they finish ‘greeting’ each other to eventually waddle away from prying human eyes.
For me personally, having the privilege of observing this amazing animal so closely was quite a moving experience. These little guys need all the assistance they can get if they are to survive in this world. If we all do our bit by doing simple things like not littering our beaches (or anywhere actually), keeping our pets under control and basically respecting our land, ocean, flora and fauna in general then along with important studies being carried out by dedicated people like Mel, and some luck, then maybe The precious Yellow Eyed Penguin will make the journey into the future.
Blogger – Sharon Cunningham (Guide)
Mel Young and others from the University of Otago are conducting research to determine the spatial overlap between commercial fisheries and industrial activities in areas that are of importance for fledging hoiho during their juvenile year. Her work has received national and international recognition – follow the tragic story of Takaraha (Yellow-Eyed-Penguin) below.
To make a donation to help Mel’s research Cheques can be posted to
Save the Otago Peninsula (STOP) Inc.
Soc., PO Box 23, Portobello, Dunedin, New Zealand 9048
Reference: Mel Young/(Your surname)