Everyday of the year, with the unfailing regularity of sunrise and sunset, a twice-daily miracle of nature takes place along the South Island’s secluded southern and eastern shores:the departure and homecoming of yellow-eyed penguins. In the water and from a distance, they could be mistaken for shags, podgy and buoyant as they bob about beyond the line of breakers. Then the just-right wave comes and the birds catch it, porpoising down its steep face until the water sloshes out, depositing them at the beach’s edge, where they suddenly stand up, surprisingly large and elegant in their feathery tuxedos. Then they begin waddling ashore, a sight that is both comical and wondrous—an indelible memory.
I first saw them on Codfish Island, when, after a day following kakapo trails, I hunkered down where the podocarp forest meets the aptly named Penguin Beach and steadied my elbows and binoculars on a rock to scan the incoming surf, spotting the lithe bodies darting gracefully down the walls of water. The rollers were high and powerful, and they first dumped the penguins on the beach, then immediately tried to pull them back out, so the birds were getting up from their tumbles with a single-minded urgency, power-walking ashore against the sucking-back surge. Only when safely out of the turmoil would they stop to preen and regain their composure, watching the landing antics of other penguins, their black-and-white statuesque forms reflecting in the shiny wet sand, catching the warm hues of the sunset.
It was there and then, on Codfish, that I became afflicted with penguinophilia—more precisely, with its yellow-eyed strain—a condition whose symptoms manifest themselves as an overwhelming desire to repeat the viewing experience, with a total disregard for meteorological inclemency, personal discomfort or family commitments. Which is why, this spring, I once again travelled between the southern Catlins and Moeraki, watching yellow-eyed penguins—or yeps, as they are acronymically called—at every opportunity. This time, too, I found solace in discovering that my affliction was not an isolated case; that in fact, along the South Island’s Penguin Coast, it is as common as it is incurable.
“Yellow-eyeds are contagious,” Nancy Gee, a retired nurse and wildlife ranger told me in Curio Bay. You see them once and the spell is cast. Next thing you know you’re on the beach at every sunset, waiting for them to come ashore.
There may be many reasons why we find the hoiho (noise-shouter) so irresistibly magnetic: the humanoid posture, the Chaplinesque gait, the immaculate dress code contrasting with a peroxide coiffure. Size and rarity also play a part. Sufficiently distinct from all other penguins to justify a genus to itself, not only is the hoiho (Megadyptes antipodes) the largest temperate-zone penguin (and the fourth largest overall), it also vies with the Galapagos and Fiordland crested species for the rueful distinction of being the rarest penguin in the world. It is found only in New Zealand, and then largely in the subantarctic islands. Of the estimated total population of some 1400–1700 breeding pairs, only around 420 pairs, plus some freelancing bachelors—a total of perhaps 1000 birds—live on the South Island, with perhaps a further 200 pairs on Stewart and Codfish Islands. And they truly live there. Unlike all other penguins, adult yellow-eyeds do not have a migratory season. They return to roost in the same patch of coastal bush every night of their lives.
As compelling as the bird’s statistical biology is its maverick disposition. Think of penguins and you may imagine megalopolis-sized colonies, with noise and traffic reminiscent of rush hour in Tokyo. Well, not so with yellow-eyeds. You will rarely see them socialising, and even then not for long, and mainly in winter. In the penguin world of sheepish follow-the-leader congeniality and don’t-step-on-my-toes, flipper-to-flipper living densities, hoiho is its own bird, an individualist, even a recluse, favouring above all its personal space and privacy. It will go to extraordinary efforts to secure these, choosing to nest in isolation, away from the nearest neighbour, commuting up to a kilometre inland and on occasion over terrain so steep that researchers have to use fixed ropes to follow them.
Even in traditional hoiho hotspots—the Catlins or the cliff-faced outskirts of Dunedin—the highway-like trails that lead from the landing-cum-launching pads up towards the hillside penguin real estates branch and split into secluded mews, each with a private ocean view and nary a glimpse of the neighbours. This, I reflect, motoring along the Otago Peninsula’s waterfront past driveways winding up to exclusive, thickly wooded hillside properties, is not all that different from our own idea of a well-appointed suburb. Never mind the neighbours, just as long as there is a high hedge between them and us.
Appropriately sequestered, hoiho enjoy one of the longest breeding seasons among penguins—from September to February. Only emperor and king penguins spend longer bearing and raising their offspring. Two eggs are laid in September or October and hatch six weeks later. One parent stands guard over the nestlings for a further six weeks (a period known as the guard stage), following which both parents forage at sea daily for another six to eight weeks (the post guard stage) to satisfy the voracious appetites of the two rapidly growing chicks, now some 5–7 kilograms in weight. Most young take to the sea by the end of February, but do not graduate to the golden circlet around the head until they are 14–16 months old.
I have been drawn to the Peninsula—a hilly and puzzle-piece-shaped volcanic island only just attached to the South Island—partly on account of the fact that it is the country’s best-known penguinery, where much of the Megadyptes research has taken place, but also because it is here that the most severe cases of yep-philia have been reported. And of those none is more telling than that of Lance Richdale, a local schoolteacher and amateur ornithologist who died in 1983.
Richdale is remembered for many remarkable feats. He was the original nature-study man, a Dead Poets Society kind of teacher who took his pupils out of the classroom and into the field. He was a conservationist so devoted to his causes that, for example, to protect the eggs of the first albatrosses nesting at Taiaroa Head, he camped next to them, which is how the now world-renowned colony came to be. He also lived for a total of some 50 solitary and often tent-bound weeks on tiny Whero Rock, near Stewart Island, studying sooty shearwaters (muttonbirds), fairy prions and diving petrels.
But it was yellow-eyed penguins that stook up most of Richdale’s time. “. . . to gain just a little understanding of birds it is necessary to almost live with them,” he wrote. “This I have had to do with the penguins. Over a period of eleven years something like 1000 visits, involving travelling 40,000 miles by car, have been made to different colonies.” From 1936 on, Richdale became a familiar figure on the Peninsula, tramping its many bays and headlands, getting to know the penguins so intimately he was able to construct the entire life history of individual birds. He found not only that the birds had their own personalities, as different from each other as one human from the next, but that their private lives were extremely complex—veritable soap operas of marriages, divorces and illicit relationships. Richdale also witnessed scenes of extraordinary connubial affection, as in the case of his favourite individual, called Z12, who, upon the arrival home of his partner, “immediately stood up on his toes, stretched out his flippers in front of him like stiff cards, pushed his head up to the sky, opened his mouth, and poured forth his beautiful semi-musical song.” He was certainly delighted to see her, Richdale concluded.
Not surprisingly, the results of Richdale’s 1936–1954 work, the fruits of his relentless curiosity, when published in two landmark books, Sexual Behaviour of Penguins (1951) and A Population Study of Penguins (1957), earned him the recognition of one of the foremost biologists of his time. “There is probably no paper in the history of science that has involved such continuous, intimate and long-term recording of the behaviour of wild animals,” Robert Cushman Murphy, an ornithological counterpart of Indiana Jones from the Museum of Natural History in New York, wrote of Richdale’s work. Little wonder, then, that when Richdale retired in the early 1960s, there was a general consensus that all there was to know about yellow-eyed penguins had been discovered. Except, perhaps, for the most crucial fact: how to ensure their survival.
High above the-shaped Double Bay, out on the apex of a razorback ridge where the two Vs meet, stands a weather-beaten dog-house hide, a monument to another lifetime devoted to hoiho, another case of yep-philia. The ridge is so exposed a knotted handrail rope leads down to it from the tussocks above, and the hinges with which the hide’s creaky doors have been attached are made of leather, as metal would long ago have rusted away in the relentless salt-blasting weather. There is not enough room in this eyrie for both of us—John Darby and I—so we take turns, careful not to bump each other off the precipice as we change places.
It’s late afternoon, and down below, through the kelp swirling like Medusa’s hair, the first hoiho are already coming home. Never disturbed on this inaccessible beach, they take their time—stretching, preening, dawdling about—before waddling off up the hill, where, through my binoculars, I can see their trails, trenches worn knee-deep into the land, ruts created by generations of penguins tramping up and down the same tracks.
Silver-haired, eloquent and bespectacled, Darby could pass for an academic theoretician, but he was also once an expert white-water kayaker and a keen mountaineer. Still, it comes as a greater surprise to learn that here is a man who has spent more time with yellow-eyed penguins than even Richdale himself, clocking up an untold back-country mileage along the Penguin Coast. In 1979, Darby took up hoiho research where his predecessor had left off, and he carried the baton for the next two decades. He did so voluntarily and in his spare time, all the while attending to his full-time job as assistant director at Otago Museum and raising three children. This entailed getting up at the Buddhist hour of 4.00 A.M., driving to various colonies to see the penguins off, putting in a full day’s work, and being back at an observation point for the birds’ evening return. Weekends, too, were taken up by penguins, but at least Darby could take the family along on these coastal escapades.
All-consuming yep-philia, I thought; absolutely no hope. Try doing that for 20 years—it would be like following the daily training regime of a Coast-to-Coast athlete. In fact, it was partly fascination with the athletic abilities of the penguins, which he calls superbirds, that drove Darby to study them. “They are incredibly robust, long-lived birds,” he tells me. They swim 8–15 kilometres out to sea, to the edge of the continental shelf, and dive up to 200 times a day as deep as 140 metres, he says. Then they come back with as much as a kilogram of food in their stomachs and walk and climb maybe a kilometre inland to their nests. “During the breeding season, they do this day in and day out,” Darby says. “It is a superathlete effort.”
Yeps are so well thermally insulated you could think of them as wearing the equivalent of a 10-millimetre wetsuit, although the analogy is not entirely correct because their feathers are so thick and tightly woven the water never gets to their skin. Neither do parasites. Penguins have more problems staying cool than keeping warm, Darby says, which is why they are rarely found north of Banks Peninsula.
Hoiho have evolved superb thermoregulatory abilities. At sea, for example, their feet are pure white, as blood is diverted from their extremities, which retain only about 10 per cent of their onshore flow. But as soon they arrive on land, circulation is restored and their feet turn pink. “Their flippers and feet are like radiators dissipating excess heat,” Darby says. This perhaps explains why they take so long coming ashore. Swimming generates heat, and on land they have to slow down to cool off.
As Darby prowled the Penguin Coast one factor began to overwhelm his entire research: yellow-eyed penguins were in desperately low numbers. In the Catlins’ Hinahina Cove, for instance, where Richdale had reported 40–50 pairs, Darby found only eight nests, and surveys in other nooks of the coast revealed a similar pattern. Either Richdale’s data were not correct, or the penguins were vanishing at an alarming rate.
Intuitively, the explanation may seem obvious, but science requires proof, so Darby undertook a hoiho population study. For two years he surveyed penguin numbers at selected Peninsula locations; for another two years he ran an intensive trapping programme in half of these places; for yet another two years he again stood back, watched and surveyed. By 1987, the results of his study were as clear as they were shocking: the hoiho’s favourite habitat the marginal strip between farmland and sea, of abrupt drop-offs forested with hebe, Olearia and flax—also supported one of the highest densities of introduced predators anywhere in New Zealand. Penguins simply did not stand a chance against the onslaught of stoats, ferrets and feral cats. Only in the intensively trapped study areas did Darby record anything resembling Richdale’s chick counts.
“The female yellow-eyeds are breeding machines,” Darby says. “They nest every year and can produce 20 or more chicks in their 15–20-year lifetime.” But up to 80 per cent of chicks were disappearing even before fledging, hence never reaching what naturally would be the most perilous stage in their life cycle—when they go out to sea for the first time and start to figure out life by themselves.
After completing his six–year study, Darby went public with his findings, tolling the bells of alarm and prompting a considerable gasp of disbelief among local residents. Nothing, he says, has quite the same stirring effect as showing a dozen freshly killed penguins on regional television. People had always taken the presence of hoiho for granted. Farmer and conservationist Paul Every, who spent much of his childhood in the Catlins, admitted that he grew up thinking the yellow–eyed penguin was a common bird. Alas, as Darby had shown, the transition from common to rare to gone could take as little as a decade or two. With very little in the way of active protection in the mid-’80s, and with no recruitment from Campbell and Auckland Islands, mainland hoiho were on their own and on the brink.
But they would not be without help. Following Darby’s dire revelations, a remarkable series of events unfolded. A group of private individuals got together and created a national precedent: a public trust whose sole raison d’être was the protection and wellbeing of a single species, the yellow-eyed penguin. They ran fundraising campaigns such as school mufti days, Viennese magic balls and penguin parades, they secured grants and sponsorship, they made things happen. In short order they had a plant nursery and a 4 x 4 truck, and, with time, they started buying up, replanting and fencing off critical hoiho habitat—Omihi, Sandfly Bay, Okia, Tavora and Otapahi Reserves—as well as negotiating informal protection of other areas with local landowners.
The Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust’s (YEPT) biggest breakthrough came in 1990, after John Darby’s off-hand comment that Roy Wesney, star of the Mainland Products cheese advertisements, walked like a yellow-eyed penguin. Mike Begg, the company’s senior executive, liked the idea, and soon the two iconic Mainlanders—Wesney and hoiho—were Chaplin-walking side by side, the former muttering something about those “North Island townies snooping around all over the place.” Thus, a heart-warming character association was forged in the public mind and the plight of hoiho beamed from television sets across the nation.
With funds, public support and voluntary labour now available to save the yep, the decline of the species seemed to be halted, the crisis averted. Darby’s “breeding machines” kept producing new offspring, and, despite several setbacks, such as a mystery disease which wiped out almost half of all the breeding mainland birds in 1990, and a devastating forest fire in the Catlins Te Rere Reserve in 1995, which killed over 70 adults, the overall number of penguins slowly began to build up again.
The trust’s campaign has become a chain of victories: a piece of land protected here, another piece acquired there, a census on Stewart Island completed, a potential nest area replanted, another workshop on predator control for land-owners run. Over the years, the trust has done a remarkable job of not just protecting the penguin and its habitat locally, but making the whole country aware of hoiho—getting an image on the back of the five-dollar note, for instance. Eventually, it would like to see the bird flourishing in all those areas yellow-eyed penguins roamed in pre-human times.
“Yeps are remarkably resilient creatures,” the trust’s project officer, David Blair, tells me as we walk under the volcanic pyramids of Okia Reserve checking mustelid traps. An archetypal good keen man, Blair is a former high-country shepherd and hunter. He is also an expert trapper, and when we find a dead stoat he uses the carcass to wipe his scent from around the traps.“With almost all the critical penguin habitat now protected, we want to move away from directly intervening in their world,” Blair says. Give them a safe place to live, keep the predators at bay, then just lend a little bit of a helping hand when needed—cut a new track over a dune steepened by a violent storm, put up a nest box (like an empty milk crate—three walls and a roof, the opening facing the sea). That’s all we have to do, Blair says. Penguins can deal with everything else.
But can they really? As I drive around with Blair, visiting Otago Peninsula’s reserves, it dawns on me that he is the trust’s only full-time foot soldier, fighting on several different fronts. Ironically, all the good PR the trust and the penguins have enjoyed has created the false perception that the job has been accomplished, the yellow-eyeds saved, says Sue Murray, the trust’s executive officer. The sponsorship, though continuing, has been substantially reduced, and the trustees find themselves once again hawking the yep’s cause. “The trust may be a national success story but the penguins are far from it,” Murray says. “Despite all the work and help over the past 16 years, they are only just holding their own.”
Just how much effort and what resources are required to give hoiho a reasonable assurance of safety I glimpse the following day, in a private penguin reserve at Pipikaretu Beach, near Taiaroa Head. Despite the YEPT’s financial worries, there is good money in penguins; when I enquired at the tourist information centre in the Octagon, there were at least five hoiho tours on offer on the Peninsula alone. I have gone for the largest and most controversial, run by Howard McGrouther, a farmer who has turned the marginal coastal strip adjoining his paddocks into a veritable tourist gold mine.
What makes this venture controversial is that, unlike other ecotour operators, McGrouther doesn’t limit himself to driving his clients to the top of a hill or to a hide, handing out binoculars and hoping the penguins will show up on time. He has actually dug a network of trenches through the penguins’ habitat, from where, at ground level, visitors can look at close range directly into the nests. Imagine how that goes down with the purists. It’s a penguin farm, they snort.
Nevertheless, a steady stream of visitors is a sure sign that McGrouther’s is a winning formula. When I join a tour, we are treated to an introductory slide show extolling both the rarity and the uniqueness of hoiho and sprinkled with memorable morsels of knowledge, such as the fact that the eyes of yellow-eyed penguins are blue for the first few months of life and only change colour as the chicks acquire their full tuxedo plumage.
Steady rain is pummelling the corrugated-iron roof of the theatrette, which adjoins a machinery shed (McGrouther’s operation is also a working sheep farm), but inside, among the crowd clad in colourful wet-weather gear, there is a palpable sense of anticipation. We New Zealanders take these things for granted, a guide in oilskins tells me, but for some tourists, seeing the penguins is a highlight of their visit to this country, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
By bus, we travel down a narrow farm road, past gates and paddocks, to the colony, tucked under a cliff on the edge of a beach. From a distance, it resembles a First World War battlefield. A labyrinth of chest-deep galleries, reinforced with sandbags, has been hollowed out of the tussocked dunes. The battlefield illusion is completed by khaki-coloured hides with horizontal slit windows, and an extensive roofing of camouflage nets which, burnt by the sun, look like black vineyard mesh covered with dry leaves. We troop in single file through the trenches, occasionally ducking under penguin bridges. The guide frequently calls a halt and through the slits points out where, only a few metres away, an unbothered hoiho sits in a nest box, incubating its eggs.
Having already seen many penguins, I’m more interested in observing my fellow humans. Their reaction to seeing hoiho at close quarters can only be described as open-mouthed enchantment. Digital cameras hum and chime, voices are hushed, fingers point. All too soon, it seems, the tour is over and the guides are ushering us out, communicating via radios to avoid bottleneck congestion in the trenches.
McGrouther is away in Fiji, a consultant in the setting-up of a similar venture focusing on a species of goanna, but his business partner, Scott Clarke, is here and drives me to the top of the headland for an overview of the project. To be sure, it’s a money-making venture—and a good one, Clarke says. In summer, tours depart every half-hour with clockwork regularity, and a good year may see some 50,000 visitors catered for by a staff of 20. But Clarke is quick to point out that the viewing area occupies only a tiny fraction of the total penguin habitat, which extends along Pipikaretu Beach and past Quion Cliff to encompass Ryans Beach, which in turn borders the YEPT’s Okia Reserve, and that what I can see is in fact a new concept in species protection—a totally private, independent and self-funded conservation reserve.
Clarke is a no-nonsense bloke and doesn’t mince words. “Look, I don’t have time for this idea of non-intervention in the penguins’ world,” he tells me. “We’ve altered their habitat so much: we’ve cleared the forests, introduced predators and foreign plants, pushed the poor buggers to the limits of their existence. We can’t just step back now and let nature take its course, because if it does, very soon there won’t be any yellow-eyeds left.”
New Zealand is not really committed to the conservation of its biodiversity, Clarke says; we are doing nowhere near enough to hold back the wave of extinctions sweeping our shores. At the coalface of conservation a lot more money, effort and political goodwill is needed.
“It’s a full-time job to keep this place safe for penguins,” Clarke tells me. “We have an intensive trapping regime around the reserve, we have foot hunters taking out possums, rabbits and feral cats, we employ our own resident scientist.” Listening to him, I have no doubt that the penguins here must be the most protected on the planet.
Other species have also taken advantage of the haven that has been created. “We never knew what we had here,” Clarke says, “but suddenly it appeared there were over a hundred little blue penguins wanting to nest here as well.” The reserve’s rangers stepped in quickly, constructing a new penguin suburb, faintly Wellingtonian in layout—a kind of Hobbiton of round-doored nest boxes cascading down the side of a steep hill into the sea. Most of these residences are now occupied, and as Clarke edges open the roof of one, I make out inside the chiaroscuro shape of a little blue nestled over its eggs.
Doesn’t the continuous human presence bother the penguins, I ask Clarke? “Not really,” he says. “As long as the behaviour of people is consistent and non-threatening, the penguins accept us as just another animal in their world.” This, unfortunately, is rarely the case in most other, just-off-the-highway, hoiho hotspots, he adds. In fact, according to Clarke, unrestricted public access to the penguins’ major breeding grounds is probably the most serious cause of the birds’ predicament.
Travelling the coast, I have already heard stories of yeps staying out at sea, and thus starving their chicks, when they see people continually promenading along their beaches; of playful dogs wreaking havoc in penguin habitat; of tourists chasing birds for close-up photographs, or picking them up during the moult (in March–April, hoiho are more or less immobilised for 3–4 weeks while their plumage renews itself), bringing them as sick birds to the local rangers. Curio Bay’s Nancy Gee voluntarily spends every summer night on the beach, monitoring not penguins but people, and she can’t wait for when, in the near future, the famous petrified-forest shore will be closed to the public and accessible only to those accompanied by a qualified local guide.
Unfortunately, despite striking and comical similarities with humans in habits and preferences, despite how much we like to anthropomorphise penguins, people and hoiho cannot really cohabit, meaning even the most dedicated neighbourhood watch is doomed to fail in the long term. In the ideal yep world, all the people visiting it would have a solid awareness of the birds’ need for privacy and the precariousness of their existence on the land’s edge. Until that is the case, the only realistic way to assure the hoiho’s survival would seem to be the creation of penguins-only, human no-go zones. The question is: are we prepared to give hoiho the space they need, even if that means giving up our own access to some of their beaches?
I doesn’t take much to save hoiho—much space, that is, for the amount of work required is still considerable. This becomes clear to me as I sit one September morning on the bank of North Otago’s Shag River with Janice Jones and Rosalie Goldsworthy, skimming pebbles across the barely moving water. The two women in woollies and gumboots have set up scoop-like nets in an attempt to catch whitebait. The pickings are slim, however, and our conversation invariably drifts back to what has become these two women’s lifetime mission: helping the yeps along the Moeraki coast.
Moeraki is a delightful fishing hamlet, famed for its seafood and the bizarre beach boulders, for its land’s-end lighthouse, and for Janice Jones’ hoiho hospital. For 22 years, as yet another voluntary wildlife ranger, Jones lived with her late husband, Bob, in the lighthouse-keeper’s house, and the couple became the hoiho’s most devoted rescuers, often stepping in as foster parents for orphaned or ailing juveniles. Janice has recently retired, at least officially, and Rosalie Goldsworthy, a former school principal, has taken her place. Between them, the two have enough passion for wildlife, and the can-do inner fire, to save every single hoiho north of Dunedin.
“What we do here is direct intervention,” says Rosalie, who, prior to moving to Moeraki, ran a bird rescue centre in Wellington. “Basically, if we see sick or injured penguins, we take them home and keep them in pens until they recover.” The lame come with a variety of injuries, including bites from encounters with sharks, barracuda, dogs and sea lions, but most are still-goofy juveniles that haven’t quite learnt the fishing trade and have nearly starved to death as a result.
Contrary to common misconception, hoiho do not become habituated to people and do not return for food hand-outs. “When their health is compromised, animals often lose their natural aggression,” Rosalie says. “They may seem docile, and tolerant of humans, almost pet-like.” But that’s only temporary. As soon as poorly hoiho recover, they are back to being penguins again. There is no mistaking that moment when it comes, Rosalie says. “They tell us when it is time to release them.”
Healthy hoiho, which stand 68 centimetres tall and weigh up to 8 kilograms, are capable of severely kicking, pecking, scratching, and cuffing with their stiff wings anyone who handles them. Dave Houston, a penguin specialist from DoC, Oamaru, says “the closest thing to being beaten up by a penguin is being grabbed with a pair of needle-nosed pliers and beaten with sandals!”
As she talks, Rosalie keeps lobbing pebbles into the river, the splashes and ripples like exclamation marks in her rhetoric. There is stubbornness in her voice because her and Janice’s hands-on rescue work has often been criticised—most harshly as an incompetent meddling with nature, more benignly as a harmless pastime of women who direct their motherly instinct towards exotic creatures. The critics, Rosalie fumes, have probably never been to the front line where the conservation battle is taking place. Plonk goes a pebble. If they did, they’d see that the results speak for themselves: over the past two decades, first the Joneses, and now she, have helped more than 250 penguins to get back on their feet. That, I reflect, is a significant fraction of the South Island’s entire hoiho population. Plonk.
While Rosalie’s inner fire burns explosively, Janice’s is more steady, though equally strong. “In 1985 there were 550 breeding pairs on the mainland, today there are about 400,” she says. “I fear that if we don’t commit more resources and take out all the harmful elements we introduced into the penguins’ world, if we don’t offer hoiho a stronger helping hand, we may lose them within a decade.”Not a single whitebait passes above the reflective highway marker sunk to the river floor as an indicator, but the two women keep casting their pebbles. And that is my parting image of them—making ripples in the indifferent waters.
The sun has not yet lifted off the quicksilver ocean when I sit in the ridge-top hide overlooking the Moeraki lighthouse hoiho colony. Inside, there are three sets of binoculars chained to the wall, a carpeted bench and, beneath the slit viewing window, anther bench on which to steady the elbows—all built just so for long hours of penguin watching. Janice Jones certainly knew how to ease the hardships that yep-philia often entails.
The sea is calm. Distant fishing boats trawl in leisurely fashion where a brown foam line and frothing breakers mark a far-off reef. Inshore kelp sways rhythmically, and the swell combs a line of protruding rock ribs. Down below, between two crags, there is a D-shaped bay of copper-coloured sand, freshly swept by the tide, untouched but for the unmistakable pat-pat tracks of hoiho. Four birds are standing in a loose coterie on the edge of the ocean, preening, stretching, flapping their flippers, wagging their stubby tails—pilots performing their pre-flight checks, superathletes preparing to plunge into a long-haul race.
Here is a sight, I muse, that every New Zealander needs to see—from a distance, that is. It is almost impossible to encounter a kiwi in the wild, a kakapo definitely so. But here’s the hoiho noisy, visible, comically anthropomorphic, instantly endearing, a front-stage performer in the troupe of bizarre animal characters that make this country unique.
I have come to believe that seeing hoiho making landfall or leaving for the ocean is a part of our quality of life; something, like watching dolphins or walking under a kauri tree, that we need to do periodically to refresh our inherent sense of wonder. It is now seriously threatened. Predators continue to silence the noise-shouter, while the ever-increasing numbers of tourists, oblivious of the birds’ need for personal space, crowd the penguin beaches, often making it impossible for the yeps to come home. It is a telling fact that good-sized hoiho colonies are now found only in the most inaccessible crannies of the coastline.
Almost all hoiho habitat is now legally protected, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the penguins themselves are safe. And though so much amazing and selfless work has been done since John Darby’s call for action, much more still is needed if we’re not to be left with just the cheese-wrapper memories. As the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and others have shown, saving hoiho is a perfectly achievable goal—no space-shuttle science involved. All that is required is the commitment of will and resources. Walking in step with hoiho, Roy Wesney used to say that “good things take time.” Right now, we no longer have that luxury.