Blubber-giants of the sand

Well, bird poo on the head seemed to do the trick, as we managed to see all of the ‘big five’ (royal albatross, sea-lion, NZ fur seal, yellow-eyed penguin and little-blue penguin) on the wildlife-watching trip on the Otago Peninsula yesterday evening. I think I’ll be doing yoga underneath trees more often…

First stop was the royal albatross colony centre, which is the only mainland albatross breeding colony in the world. Unfortunately my timing was off, as most the birds had disappeared the week before and the only ones left were the mothers and their chicks (we weren’t able to see the nests unfortunately, as they’re protected), therefore the chances of seeing a flying royal were dramatically reduced from just a few days earlier, d’oh. Nevertheless, the mums would still have to fly back in every 2-3 days in order to bring food for their chicks, so we waited with baited breath, scanning the stormy sea with binoculars to spot the characteristic flight of the king of the ocean air (they skim the water’s surface looking for dead matter to eat, being scavengers, and perform a series of wide loops, catching the sunshine on the white underside of their wings as they turn). We saw a number of ‘mollymawks’ in the distance (the kiwis’ name for albatross other than the royal – a slightly derisive term I thought, for what are still magnificent, huge birds).

Finally, just as we were about to head back to the van, feeling rather deflated, there was a shout from the guide, and no less than two beautiful soaring royal albatross were making their way above the sea towards us, finally soaring right over our heads back to the colony.  To see them so close was staggering – the stark monochrome of their wings (black on top, white below) was beautiful in its simplicity, as was the effortless glide of their stupendous wings through the air. When you consider that these birds have a wingspan of up to 3.3m (that’s twice my height!) and, when standing, would come up to somewhere just below your waist, it’s not surprising they elicit such an awed response when seen in flight.

Next stop was a private farm, which has the huge privilege of hosting seals, sea-lions and penguins on its stretch of coastline. We first stopped at a hide just above a large NZ fur seal nursery area so we could view their behaviour up-close. Although I’ve already encountered this species on my travels, I hadn’t had the chance to be so close and see so many at the same time. It was particularly wonderful to see all the baby seals playing together in the large rock-pools with their endless boisterous energy, whilst the adults lazed around on rocks looking knackered – a reminder that humans and seals are mammals alike!  I was also struck by how mobile the babies are across the jagged rocks. They look so clumsy with their flipper-feet and all that blubber to shift, but they can really motor along.

We then moved onto a sandy beach round the corner, where we were greeted with the sight of  a group of fighting sea-lions (or blubber-giants, as I have renamed them). We were assured that this was completely normal behaviour. All the sea-lions on this beach were male and, for male sea-lions, their raison d’etre is to be aggressive and bullyish, in an endless exhausting effort to retain status in the pecking order to the end of their days. I felt rather sorry for them as I watched their grumpy bickering – perhaps one day they’ll evolve sufficient cognitive powers to think, ‘Hang on a minute, why don’t we all just be nice to each other?’, but I doubt it; they somehow look built for aggro with their thick necks and sharp teeth – they’ve found their own peculiar ecological niche. Although, I think the females get a rough deal from this – when it comes to mating time, the males prevent them from entering the water until they’ve mated – like a sinister game of British Bulldog.

Our final treat was watching a small number of yellow-eyed penguins haul themselves from the water, looking tired after a day’s feeding (they travel up to 25km a day, and make around 300 dives for food), and make the laborious waddle across the sand to the vegetated slopes behind, where they roost. There is something so inherently funny about penguins – to me they look strangely human as they waddle along, swinging their wings like arms, and stopping to jump with two feet over any obstruction. But they look like humans trying deliberately to be comical – natural-born comedians (no wonder Charlie Chaplin gained such success from assuming a penguin-like gait). These yellow-eyed penguins are the rarest penguin species in the world (there are only around 4000 left) and this colony isn’t doing too well either, due to a combination of a particularly predatory female sea-lion, who is gradually picking them off, and other non-native predators such as stoat and possum. This species  made me laugh even more in its idiosyncratic tendency to be incredibly antisocial. They don’t like to roost near each other, and we watched a couple who inadvertently arrived at a similar spot on the hillside, looked rather uncomfortable for a moment, and then both waddled off in opposite directions.

Anyway, I could bang on about the wildlife for much longer, but realise I’m in danger of writing an essay, so will finish up with a few photos of the awesome creatures I saw today.

Mum seal taking a well-earned rest while she can – look familiar any mums out there?!

Two young male sea-lions having a set-to – somehow I feel they should have cans of carling in their flippers…

Obligatory tourist shot of me and two blubber-giants behind.

Renewing energy levels ready for Round 2.

And finally, the comedy march of the penguin up the beach.

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