In search of the rare Yellow-Eyed Penguin
After coffee and a few moments to appreciate my deserted beachside camp spot, Jucy and I hit the road. It wasn’t too long before we got to our first stop, the rugged Waipapa Point.
From a small parking lot, it is a 10 minute walk to the Waipapa Point Lighthouse. Completed in 1884, it marks the scene of New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster. Three years earlier, 131 out of 151 civilians and crew aboard the SS Taratua drowned when the ship broke up on rocks just offshore.
Many of the dead washed ashore and were never identified. A Court of Inquiry recommended the lighthouse construction and changed Maritime Law to require compulsory life jackets for all crew and passengers as well as regular drills in lifeboat evacuation. A cemetery was created on a plot of land opposite the site of the shipwreck. It can be visited by walking across a sheep pasture followed by a short stroll down a designated Heritage Trail.
After visiting the cemetery, I spent some time walking the rugged beach and surrounding area. Large piles of seaweeds populate the beach which seem to attract a few sea lions.
This unusual and very green (Cypress?) tree marks the site of the lightkeeper’s house.
The lighthouse, one of the last wooden ones built in New Zealand, was automated in 1976. Today, the batteries that power the 50 watt lamp are charged by solar panels. The light can be seen nine nautical miles offshore.
The 30 km drive to Slope Point hugs the jagged Catlins coast. From the parking lot on a high bluff, it is a 30 minute walk down to the rugged beach. This, not Bluff, is the southernmost point of the south island of New Zealand. It was a blustery day and the wind was kicking up the sea. Only a few folks were making the hike down including a bundled up Philip.
And of course, the obligatory ‘I was there’ photo:
Curio Bay is a highlight of any trip through the Catlins. The area is home to the endemic Hector’s Dolphin, and Southern Right Whales. When conditions are right (they were not that day) surfers can catch waves alongside dolphins. Curio Bay also boasts an extant petrified forest (Jurassic) and is home to a Hoiho or Yellow-eyed Penguin colony.
Curio Bay is home to a Yellow-eyed Penguin colony!
At low tide, one can walk among the tide pools viewing ancient petrified tree logs and stumps such as the detail above.
I was informed that the small penguin colony were out to sea, but if I was lucky, I might see one or two around dusk. As it was still mid-morning, I decided to continue onward. I had read of two other colonies further along the coast, so I still hoped for an opportunity to photograph this rarest of penguin species.
I hoped to reach Nugget Bay by dusk as there was reportedly a colony of a dozen or so breeding pair of Yellow-eyed Penguins.
Leaving Curio Bay, the road became gravel for 20 km or so and moved away from the shore. Every few K’s there would be a dirt road going off to another beautiful, rugged and deserted coastal area.
Approaching the small town of Waikawa, the blacktop once more appeared. Seeing this trailer with a small crowd of locals lined up, I knew it was time for lunch.
The two female entrepeneurs inside cranked out a nonstop stream of fish and chips. I devoured some of the best blue cod and chips ever from a newspaper while a perused the adjacent museum of antique farm implements.
This was folowed by more gravel roads and drop-dead-gorgeous scenery. Why don’t more people come here?
Why don’t more people come here?
Around 4:00 pm I came to the turnoff for Nugget Point. Driving down the 7 km road I spotted a sign alongside a small farm stating, “Unlimited Internet $5.” I last had internet a week before in Te Anau and generally speaking, Wifi is quite expensive in New Zealand.
I stopped and met Kevin and his wife, transplants from England who run a small farm. I was invited to park my camper in the pasture for the night and surf to my heart’s content. For a small cost they would include a proper English Breakfast the following morning with home made sausages, farm fresh eggs and all the trimings. I was in!! Then I was off to Nugget Point to look for those darned elusive and endangered Yellow-eyed Penguins.
Then I was off to Nugget Point to look for those darned
elusive and endangered Yellow-eyed Penguins.
Arriving a couple hours before dusk, I had time to hike the two mile return to the point proper. This turned out to be somewhat strenuous with significant elevation changes.
Because there are only an estimated 1600 Yellow-eyed Penguins in the world, their nesting and breeding beach is closed to the public. A blind is set way up the bluff maybe 70 meters above the beach. I arrived, set up my Gorillapod, Olympus E3 with the 50-200 mm lens and 2X magnifier. A couple tourists were in the blind with me, mostly with point and shot camera which would never capture a penguin at this distance. I waited and hoped, doing my best to channel the spirit of Marlin Perkins.
Finally one penguin came ashore. Then, 10 minutes later, another couple arrived. I shot as fast as I could, changing up settings. I shot around 100 photos and later deleted more than half. With the distance and fading light, I did not get any National Geographic material, ha ha. But here are a couple of the better ones (remember I was further than a football field away in fading light):
After it was too dark to see the beach, I hiked back up to the road and drove Jucy back to Kevin’s farm, parking for the night. Kevin and I hung out in his kitchen for awhile trading beers and stories.
The following morning I hung with Kevin and his lovely wife Sue drinking coffee while they prepared a breakfast far bigger than anything I was used to consuming that early…it was magnificent!
They are the greatest hosts and if you are in the area please stay with them. You will not be sorry.
185 Ahuriri Flat Road, Balclutha
Ph: Kevin 027-4035816