They’re late. On a frosty Ōamaru night, we’re waiting for the main stars to arrive: the smallest penguins in the world.
Without warning, just as we wonder if they’ll ever arrive, an unusual squeak comes from the water. Our guide tells us what’s happening: they are organising a joint assault on the beach.
The little blue penguin/kororā is officially classified as ‘at risk’, with a declining population. That makes this national taonga, or treasure, one step away from being a threatened species.
However, in a former quarry just outside central Ōamaru, the population is growing eight to 10 per cent each year, and it’s here you can safely get up close with these little cuties.
Each night, after a fishing trip of up to 50 kilometres, the penguins gather just off the coast. While this happens, tourists are allowed into a seated stadium – under strict guidance – to watch the spectacle unfold.
The penguins hang out in the water and begin squawking to gather a group known as a raft. Then, without warning, the entertainment starts.
When the group is big enough, these tiny treasures furiously dolphin dive towards the shore and throw themselves onto anything solid. To the untrained eye, it appears like a chaotic ballet performed by a group who spent the day at the pub. But, after a frantic few seconds, each penguin manages to latch onto something and heft itself onto higher ground.
Now they’re on the land, a group of penguins is called a waddle. And we’re about to find out why.
The penguins, sometimes full of food for their chicks, hop up the rocks and huddle at the edge of the cliff – checking for predators. Again, without warning, the group starts waddling – at a furious pace – towards their nests, like a little company of soldiers racing inland.
A few minutes later, the next raft surfs ashore and repeats the process.
There are two stands for tourists to sit and watch, which gets you just a few metres from the penguins. However, the crowds are strictly controlled; you can’t use a phone or camera and can’t move to ensure you don’t disturb them.
One of the nesting routes is through the stadium, and the penguins merrily pop through the fence, inspect the audience, then continue to their chicks.
The colony now has 200 breeding pairs, which is steadily increasing, thanks to the proceeds from visitors, which helps with conservation efforts. And that’s the best kind of wildlife experience; it’s great fun to watch, but ultimately, it’s the penguin that benefits.
Getting there: Ōamaru is a three-hour drive from Christchurch or 1.5 hours from Dunedin.
Playing there: Blue Penguin Colony viewing starts from $40 per adult, $25 per child. See: penguins.co.nz
Staying there: A night in Ōamaru at Old Confectionery apartments starts from $295 for four people. See: oldconfectionery.co.nz
Staying safe: New Zealand is currently under Covid-19 restrictions. For the latest on travel advice, see: covid19.govt.nz.
The author’s trip was supported by Waitaki Tourism. See: waitakinz.com