Swimming With Hector

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
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Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Because we had only seen about 5 million penguins (complete with excessive amounts of guano) during our trip to Antarctica a couple of years ago, we decided we had to stop in Oamaru for another application of penguin viewings. To be fair, these were different, and relatively rare penguins- the Yellow Eyed Penguin, and the Little Blue Penguin. Penguins are the puppies of the bird species- you really could sit for hours and watch these cute little weebles wobbling and waddling around on dry land but seemingly with a very serious purpose in mind. And they always remind me of the Penguin character from the old Batman TV series.

The Yellow-Eyed Penguins have their own landing beach near Oamaru and while we only saw 12, apparently that was unusually good in that the entire group numbers only 30- it is the world’s rarest penguin. It’s also the fourth largest so when one of them camped out just below us, we ended up with a pretty good look and listen (because of their threatened status, the viewing area is well above the beach so as not to unduly disturb them).

The big entertainment for the night, however, were the more common Little Blue Penguins  (standing just 25 cm tall and weighing in at a little over 1 kilogram).  They only come ashore under the cover of darkness and live underground in nearby burrows. As part of a quasi-night safari, we saw 3 rafts (waves of 30 or 40) of Blues come ashore.  Watching them at sea, you can really appreciate how adapted for life at sea they are, with streamlined bodies for torpedo like speed and flat, overlapping feathers designed to keep them dry. On shore they are another story- a virtual gaggle of drunken tiny men in dark blue tuxedos, slipping on rocks, tripping over grass, all the while trying to find their equally drunken mate and their burrow (apparently Blue penguins are very faithful to their home site- the chicks will often return to within a few metres of where they were raised, and once settled in an area never move away). And like all drunks, a couple of screeching penguin songs were required before retiring for the night.

You can’t help but smile when you think of penguins and I really hope that the conservation efforts of NZ pay dividends. The loss of coastal forest has played a part in their decline on the NZ mainland, but the biggest threat to the survival of the species is introduced mammalian predators- wild cats, ferrets and stoats often kill chicks and take eggs and adult penguins all too often fall victim to dogs.

We spent the next day wandering through Oamaru, a town that is trying to muscle it’s way onto the tourist map of NZ by using the plethora of Victorian era buildings that populate its downtown area. The signage all speaks to a much older time (a little cheesy) and one of the restaurants even features afternoon tea served by wenches in period costumes (very cheesy). All in all, a good effort and it made for a nice exploratory walk. My favourite building didn’t fit in Oamaru and really didn’t fit in NZ (in general, Kiwi’s strike me as a very reserved and conservative people). A group of artists are evolving one of the downtown buildings into the Steampunk capital of New Zealand. Per their description, ‘Steampunk is a “tomorrow as it used to be” fantasy. It is a sub-culture inspired by 19th century visions of the future. The “punk” in steampunk is a rebellion against the present day’s preference for plastic and the disposable way of life. For many it is a search for where society might have taken the wrong turn at the end of the Victorian era’ (nice try at connecting with the rest of the town). I had a great time exploring this bizarre setup but DH stood outside most of the time wistfully staring across the street at the ‘afternoon tea’ place (sorry DH- former hockey players don’t do afternoon tea!).

Time to fire up Big Blue again- after a couple of days of fairly straight roads, our journey to Akaroa was a reminder of the road systems that have dominated our trip to New Zealand- unbelievably twisted and steep- there’s a steady stream of roadside signage cautioning against falling asleep behind the wheel but I don’t know how that’s possible (especially with a big campervan in tow). As a seaside destination, Akaroa was as picturesque as you might expect and very much worth the journey. It was also purported to be a French village in the heart of NZ  and we did see a French flag flying outside of one of the B&B’s, a grocery store that sold baguettes, and a barista with a French accent who served us lattes, but I’m not sure the town would cause Herve V to start dreaming of his days of wine, women, and song in gay Paris (unless they’ve started saying “how ya goin’ mate” in France these days??). 

Aside from French immersion, our real reason to visit was to swim with the Hector dolphins, one of the rarest and smallest of marine dolphins (as it turned out it was less of a swim and more along the lines of bobbing like a cork in very buoyant  5 mm wetsuits while the dolphins buzzed by). On our way to the outer bay, we were told they are so endangered that they are at the same level of near extinction as the Bengal Tigers, Mountain Gorillas and the Pandas. Once we sighted a group that were looking playful we were tossed into the water with instructions to “be interesting” without splashing, and the curious dolphins would swim over for a closer look. While many of the others were tapping rings or singing, DH (who doesn’t even sing in the shower) decided instead to use her snorkel as a megaphone and tell stories of her glory days at 52 Division. Not sure that was the best decision but it worked out great for me- presumably so as not to encourage her, most of the dolphins ended up way over where I was and I was spinning like a top trying to keep up with them. A dozen or so played their own version of tag-you’re-it in between us, and two actually jumped high in the air right in front of us although they are not known for their acrobatics. And to top it off we saw more penguins- this time the White Flipper Penguin, a sub species of the Blue Penguin. A fun day spent with nature.
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Comments

Herve V on

Hello guys,
Really fun to read your stories..

Glad to see that the French culture is slowly conquering the world.. Even in NZ you can find a baguette.. Do not worry, it is just a matter of time for the Lido and good wine to get there..
....unless the American culture finally gets the best out of the French.. Touche on that Vic !

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