In 2009, to celebrate my wife Brenda’s retirement, we flew to New Zealand for a month long motorcycle coddiwomple around the South Island. We rented a Suzuki V-Strom 650 in Dunedin and started a clockwise circumnavigation without any real plan except to wander where notions took us. On the east side, we headed down the coast to see the Blue Penguin colony we had read about.
With Christchurch’s density and the coastal plain behind us, we found our way to Oamaru down Route One. Oamaru is an old city here in New Zealand having been established in the early 1800’s and the wide streets built to accommodate large teams of horses pulling wagons up from the docks, allowing room for the teams to turn around for the return trip, mean that 21st century traffic is no concern.
The buildings are grander than in any other city we have seen here on the island, formed of large blocks of native limestone which came from the quarry where the penguin colony lives that we will visit tonight.. Since we were looking for lodging near the colony, we got a room at the King’s Gate Brydone Hotel, a very old hotel which had formally been the “Queen’s Hotel” since the late 1800’s, kept mostly in its original style. The rooms are small, obviously built without “facilities” which were then added in later when such amenities became popular. There is a formal dining room downstairs where one can imagine great doings having taken place in this town’s history. Our room is on the “first floor” (second floor in American-speak, with what we call the first floor being “ground floor” here) and our window looks out past the parking area where the bike is moored for the night to the coastline. I can picture the visitors from a bygone time looking out these windows at the masts of sailing ships coming and going along the wharf.
We went for a walk down through the old commercial buildings which once were warehouses and processing points for the various cargos but now are restaurants, pubs and specialty shops. Still, it doesn’t have a slick tourist-fleecing feel, but more like a town center with hubs where people gather. There are as many locals as tourists. One of the locals strikes up a conversation with us in the pub where we’re eating our fish & chips. Turns out, as is so often the case here, he’s a rider too and wants to talk about his bike, a Moto Guzzi, and his travels.
Near dusk we walk down to the blue penguin colony site to watch the birds’ return to the nesting area from their days out at sea. There is a viewing area set up at the end of a gravel road, in the abandoned quarry where penguins have been coming for perhaps two million years, interrupted only briefly by human activity. The area is lit at night with an orange wavelength light that the penguins cannot perceive, so that we can see them but they are in the “dark”. There are no photographs permitted, to avoid the possibility of unwanted flashes that will upset the return migration. The birds start to arrive back at the colony a short time after nightfall and make their laborious way up the rocky bank. They stop periodically to spread their flippers and shed body heat that they’ve built up in their day (or days…or sometimes weeks) of swimming.
They are tiny things, no more than about 18 inches high, I’d guess, but they can swim as much as 75 kilometers (about 46 miles) in a day’s feeding session. From far out in the ocean, their instinct leads them back to this small bank of rocks. Eventually they reach the level area that is to us a narrow gravel road, but to them a “no man’s land” they must cross to reach the protected nest boxes set up in a field of grassy hummocks. They stop at the edge of the road, look both ways several times, then in a group waddle quickly across, getting up surprising speed for such an awkward gait on land. Once in the nesting area, they disperse like commandos taking up positions in hostile territory, making their way to the boxes.
Then, after about a half hour or so, you can see some of them emerging from boxes, waddling across the grass and ducking into another box. Blue Penguins do mate for life, but one can almost picture in this scenario Mr. Penguin telling Mrs. Penguin he has to pop out for a pack of haddock and he’ll be back in about an hour (Or maybe it’s the other way around…I’m not real sure I can tell one gender from another, but I’ll bet they can, even in the dark.)
After most of tonight’s crew had arrived (one can never be sure how many will arrive on any given night, since when there are no chicks, the adults can stay out at sea for long periods) there is a quiet period and then begins a strange trilling back and forth from one box to another, which is either reporting in for the night, a beacon to help guide in the stragglers or the Penguin version of “Good night John-Boy”. Whatever it is, it’s eery. Brenda, who has better ears than I do, says she could hear “clicks” from the ones coming ashore that seemed to respond to the trilling from the nest boxes, apparently like a homing call or encouragement to help the group get back together on shore.
Later as we walk back to our room in the dark, under the stars that one only sees from down here below the Equator, we think about our place in the scheme of things, the broad expanse of countless centuries where human habitation of this island is but a blip in the timeline of these little birds. We owe it to them and their next generations to not screw it up.