Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Beguiling Penguins of Otago Peninsula, NZ

October 21, 2015
The Beguiling Penguins of Otago Peninsula, NZ All photos by Worldwide Scott

The rugged Otago Peninsula dramatically splits off from New Zealand's South Island near Dunedin, resulting in a gorgeous stretch of soil that honestly feels more island than peninsula.

This locale is an easy day trip from Dunedin, and one of the main draws of the Otago Peninsula is the chance to see wildlife like albatross, seals and penguins in the wild.

I repeat: real, live, penguins.

Yes, the peninsula is home to both endangered Yellow Eye penguins and Little Blue penguins, which use its coastal waters and sands to breed and nest. And the best part is, you can go out and see them for free!

Seeing them is never a sure thing, of course, as wild animals are unpredictable. But odds are if you head out to Pilot Beach around sunset and wait, you will soon be treated to a procession of Little Blue penguins coming home after a long day of doing whatever it is penguins do.

Instead of making it a day trip like most people, we decided to spend the night out on the peninsula, thus increasing our odds that we would see our fair share of the adorable little tuxedo wearing furballs. We even decided to stay at Penguin Place, which is a rehabilitation center dedicated to helping the Yellow Eye penguin thrive. When we arrived, we were told that they offered tours of their facility, including something called “up close penguin encounters” — for a price mind you — but we decided to save our dollars and just get the “Little Blue” show on the beach for free, thank you very much.

We bided our time in our room, and then as dusk was approaching, shuffled down the driveway of Penguin Place and off to the beach where the penguins made their much ballyhooed arrival each evening. We took our position among a small but dedicated crowd, all excited to see some penguins. Some took selfies, some made polite conversation with fellow penguin-heads, and still others put on head-to-toe penguin outfits, hoping it would attract the real thing.

Ok, maybe I made that last one up.

As darkness slowly started to descend upon us, there were no penguins in sight, but no one was panicking. We went with it, assuming this must be the normal procedure. Then all of a sudden something shiny was spotted in the water.  We waited. We hoped. Then we sadly discovered it was just a seal's head. Normally, the sight of a seal in the wild would be enough to get excited about, but we weren't interested in seals on this evening, so we rolled our eyes at the opening act and kept our eyes focused on the prized penguins.

Minutes went by, wind whipped, morale sagged, and — most importantly — light disappeared, and we now found ourselves a slightly smaller mass huddled together on the beach.

That's when I heard it — the pitter-patter of tiny feet on the beach. I called out to everyone "I can hear them, they're finally here!" People rushed back from their car, fired up their cameras and got ready for the long-awaited payoff.

Except they weren't there.

To this day, I still don't know what I heard that night on the beach, but it definitely wasn't penguins.
After one more false alarm that turned out to be a soda can floating in the water, the dejected group dispersed. We hitchhiked with a friendly local family back to Penguin Place, and once we were loaded into the back of their SUV, the Mom of the family leaned back to us and said something that has stuck with me ever since:  "Shame the penguins were a no show, huh?"

You're telling me.


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