As the sun dips below the horizon, the shadow of Earth sweeps across the Auckland Islands. I’m on my belly in deep scrub, reaching for the last click on my camera’s aperture dial, trying to wring a few more precious minutes from the day’s filming.
Hundreds of miles from mainland New Zealand, I’m as close to the wild as I’ve ever been—just metres from a yellow-eyed penguin. The eggs it has nurtured for weeks are hatching before my eyes, the first chick punching its way through the eggshell to breathe the subantarctic air. Finally, the adult stands up long enough to give me a clear angle on the newborn, a tiny broken umbrella of bones and wet down struggling through the shattered eggshell.
Suddenly, I hear footsteps through the undergrowth. The bird in front of me begins to quiver and gasp. Then, before I can register what’s happening, it’s shrieking—a piercing, wild sound that rips through me at close range.
It’s the other parent, returning from two days’ feeding at sea. The new arrival also begins to shriek and pant; the sound is deafening and confronting. The two new parents greet and preen each other in excitement.
Finally the first bird steps off the nest to make way for the other. The new one takes a moment to greet its offspring before settling down to keep the infant warm with its body, the chick disappearing again beneath a roll of white belly feathers.
I’m unprepared for the intensity of being this close to such an intimate moment in the lives of these wild animals. As the departing penguin disappears into the forest, I drag myself backwards out of my hiding place and stumble home to the hut, exhausted. I feel a little contrite, like I saw too much, got too close to their secret lives. I just hope I got that shot.
This was one evening of two months’ filming on remote Enderby Island for TVNZ’s Our Big Blue Backyard series with NHNZ. During the six weeks that followed this hatching, I watched those two chicks grow from tiny balls of fluff to big gangly pyramids atop oversize feet, by which stage they had become curious about me, often wandering over for a closer look.
Enderby Island offers a glimpse of how the shores of mainland New Zealand might have looked before humans arrived: yellow-eyed penguins flow like a stream to and from the beach and haunt the secret trails that weave like arteries through the rata forest. In the calm of evening, the island resounds with their shrieks as a wave of nest changeovers takes place.
While living on Enderby, I gained an appreciation for the difficulty of penguin lives—how everything depends on that grey gobful of food they carry up from the beach to dump into their chicks’ mouths. I saw how reliant the parents are on each other, each taking their turn on the nest while the other goes to sea to forage.
Penguins spend most of their lives at sea; we can only get a glimpse of their biology when they come ashore to breed and moult. And yet that glimpse can tell us so much about the ocean that surrounds us. It’s this—more than anything—that draws scientists to the most remote corners of the Earth to study them.
Thomas Mattern leans against a tree and wipes the Fiordland drizzle from his brow, the beam of his headlamp picking out needles of rain in the wet dusk. He and his assistant Robin Long have been in Milford Sound for more than a week, attaching GPS data loggers to Fiordland crested penguins, or tawaki, in order to learn more about their feeding patterns.
Mattern gazes out on the rain-pimpled surface of the fjord. In the fading light, a couple of penguins can still be seen bobbing around out there—tantalisingly close for Mattern, who needs to catch the one with a data logger attached to its back.
“It is so difficult to work with these birds,” he says. “They’re so elusive and so difficult to observe. It’s no wonder no one knows they exist.”
Time is not on his side tonight, and finally the sheer walls of Milford Sound recede into the gloom as rain sets in for the evening. He and Long kayak back across Harrison Cove, their paddle splashes soft in the enormous dark.
Tawaki breed in a long belt of isolated country that stretches from Stewart Island to South Westland—birds of the igneous rubble, scrabbling for secrecy at the hint of a footfall. They nest in green cathedrals of forest, hidden away in the inaccessible crevices between jagged boulders. It takes a tenacious and highly experienced searcher to find their nests; Mattern locates them by listening for the soft cheeping of chicks.
When he finds a nest, he often has to slither down a long, narrow crevice between boulders to get close, battling claustrophobia.
At least he has good help. Robin Long, in her early 20s, is probably the most experienced tawaki hunter in the world. She grew up in a remote cabin on South Westland’s wild Gorge River—her childhood playground the densely forested coastline that is at the heart of tawaki breeding habitat.
Last summer’s El Niño conditions took a heavy toll on the birds there. Southerly winds pushed food sources offshore, forcing the birds to travel much further to forage. Mattern and Long’s loggers recorded the penguins travelling up to 100 kilometres out to sea, conditions devastating to chick survival.
“Most of the food the adults find, they use themselves,” Mattern tells me. “They only bring the scraps back to their chicks. The adults were doing OK, but all the chicks died of starvation. We found some with just sticks and mud in their stomachs.”
This summer, while foraging conditions were better, predators have exacted a terrible toll on the Westland birds, with stoats wiping out a whole generation of chicks from some colonies.
Officially, there are around 6000 tawaki on our coast, but only one survey has ever been conducted, and that was around two decades ago. From personal and anecdotal experience, Mattern believes there are far more of these birds than are recorded. On Stewart Island’s northeastern coast, he tells me, “every nook and cranny” is filled with nesting tawaki.
The official record of tawaki nests in Milford Sound is just nine. But when Mattern and Long started their work here, they found 17 nests in Harrison Cove alone. What’s more, conditions here are so good that tawaki never have to leave the fjord to find enough food. There are far fewer predators on this sheer, inaccessible coast as well.
The upshot is that while South Westland birds have taken a hammering in the past two years, Milford Sound tawaki have been enjoying a semi-charmed life. Mattern even recorded several nests in which parents raised two chicks, something highly unusual for tawaki. (Usually the smaller chick of the two—for reasons not fully understood by science—is shunned by the parent and allowed to perish.)
The next day, Mattern and Long finally manage to catch the penguin with the logger attached and retrieve its precious megabytes of data. Seen close up, tawaki are spectacular birds, their crisp black-and-white plumage offset by the striking yellow dash of their eponymous crest. It seems bizarre that such an impressive bird, geographically tied to this iconic New Zealand landscape, should remain so unknown to the general public.
“Most people just think they’re yellow-eyeds,” says Mattern.
Tawaki, named by Māori for a god who once walked the Earth, are mainland New Zealand’s invisible penguin. But then, seeing these animals tucked away in their secretive wombs of rock, you get the feeling they prefer it that way.
Back in Dunedin after my Milford Sound excursion, I get in my car and head north in search of the two penguin species that frequent the eastern South Island coast. As I crest a hill on the motorway, a sloppy, storm-whipped vision of the Pacific stretches towards grey infinity. There’s nothing out there beyond the city’s beach suburbs but a handful of remote islands and a lot of hostile water all the way to the edge of Antarctica.
And yet that vast expanse is penguin country. It’s their feeding ground and, like the penguin equivalent of our African savannah, the place where their story begins, for it was in these waters that the penguin lineage arose 60 million years ago.
The earliest known ‘proto-penguin’, Waimanu, looked like a sort of hybrid between a shag and a penguin. It retained folding wings common to flying birds, but with its dense bones would have been unable to leave the ground. Underwater, however, it would have been a rocket, perhaps evolving to fill the oceanic niche left when the Mesozoic extinction event wiped out the big reptilian predators of an earlier time; the mosasaurs and plesiosaurs.
Penguins evolved in a world that was much warmer than it is today—25 million years ago, the seas around New Zealand were rich pickings for big penguins, such as the 1.3 metre-tall Kairuku, which probably exploited the deep waters at the edge of the continental shelf.
What happened to Kairuku and other large penguin species is uncertain, but perhaps as whales and dolphins rose to dominance, they were simply out-competed. Instead, penguins thrived in the role of secondary predator, targeting small fish and squid rather than bigger prey.
New Zealand has the world’s best fossil penguin record—the “manual on penguins”, according to one researcher I talked to. It may have been that this country’s isolation and relative dearth of terrestrial predators provided a nursery for penguin evolution, allowing them to consolidate and expand from here into the far corners of the Southern Hemisphere.
Today there are 18 species of penguin, found in most southern latitudes from the ice cap to the equator. Some, such as the king penguin of Macquarie Island, breed in huge colonies, pressed together for security. Others, such as yellow-eyed penguins, nest in private forest hideaways hundreds of metres from the water and well out of sight of other penguins.
There are penguins that breed on the edges of an African desert and others that incubate eggs on their feet through the long darkness of the Antarctic winter. But the greatest concentration of penguins is centred on New Zealand—half the world’s species breed on the continental shelf we are part of.
From the handsome crested penguins of the subantarctic, to the diminutive blue penguins that boaties around the country are more familiar with, penguins are all around us.
The mainland provides a breeding platform for tawaki, yellow-eyed and blue penguins, while the Snares Islands have their own species—the Snares crested penguin, endemic to just 3.5 square kilometres of rock.
The southern South Island, Stewart Island and the Snares are washed by the sub-tropical front, a body of water rich in iron from dust blown into the ocean out of Australia’s arid interior. Iron stimulates phytoplankton growth, creating a rich feeding ground for penguins. Snares crested penguins—and probably tawaki—take advantage of this, migrating clear across the Tasman Ocean to feed in Australian waters.
The sub-tropical front is an oceanographic barrier that splits the mainland and Snares Island species from the more southerly penguins. Historically, this barrier may also have defined the southern limit of another species, a ghost recently unearthed by ancient DNA analysis.
The Waitaha penguin, once prevalent on our coasts, was likely hunted to extinction by Māori 500 years ago. Yellow-eyed penguins from the subantarctic have since moved into this vacant ecological niche. Another species of crested penguin is also believed to have gone extinct on the Chatham Islands, perhaps as recently as the late 1800s.
South of the subtropical front, the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island each host some 500 yellow-eyed penguin nests during the breeding season.
Southern rockhopper penguins form large colonies on Campbell Island, as do erect-crested penguins on the Antipodes and Bounty islands.
Macquarie Island (technically Australian, but geographically part of the New Zealand continent) has four breeding species—kings, royals, gentoos and rockhoppers—while Antarctica’s Ross Dependency, which New Zealand administers, is home to Adélie and emperor penguins.
The breeding cycles of each of these species vary dramatically. King penguins take 14 months to raise a single chick, while blue penguins can raise two or even three pairs of chicks during a five-month breeding season.
Penguins generally lay two eggs, but in crested species, the first egg tends to be smaller and often fails. Erect-crested penguins produce the most radically different eggs of any bird species, the mass of the second egg being almost double that of the first. Tawaki and Snares crested penguins usually hatch both eggs, although the chick from the smaller one rarely survives.
Once the chicks have fledged, adult penguins go back to sea for a month or two to feed up before returning to land for several weeks in order to moult their feathers.
BIRD’S-EYE VIEW — VIDEO SHOT FROM A DRONE AT THE SNARES ISLANDS
After that, migratory species (which includes all the crested penguins) abandon land altogether, spending months at sea and often travelling vast distances to feed. Southern rockhopper penguins from Campbell Island were recently tracked by NIWA scientists travelling more than 15,000 kilometres—epic swims that took some birds almost as far as the Ross Sea.
“They’re extreme animals,” says David Thompson, whose team carried out this work. “Not only are they trying to gain condition whilst they’re away for the winter, but they’re actually using energy all the time, so there must be some net gain. They have very little latitude to get things wrong.”
Studying penguins in the subantarctic is expensive and difficult, and despite the dedicated efforts of researchers over the years, we still know very little about what’s happening with penguin populations in these latitudes. Erect-crested penguins, for example, have been the subject of just a handful of studies.
Much of what we know of New Zealand penguins comes from our mainland species, and especially the two that breed in coastal Otago.
Where the highway hugs the coast at Shag Point, I see big surf piling up on the near-shore reefs. A lone pilot whale thrashes around in the waves, frustrating a group of tourists struggling to push it back out to sea.
Just north of Shag Point, I turn off the highway and head out to Katiki Point, the site of the biggest yellow-eyed penguin breeding colony on the mainland. Twenty-five penguin pairs nest there, and as a result of largely unrestricted access, it is frequently flooded with tourists. According to Rosalie Goldsworthy, who runs a penguin hospital here, this is having a big impact on the birds’ breeding success.
“Some tourists will sit there for hours,” she tells me, “and the penguin will sit there and because it doesn’t move they assume it’s happy. They don’t understand they’re blocking the path to its nest.”
Up to 50,000 people a year visit Katiki Point, and beyond a few signs and Goldsworthy’s efforts to educate them on penguin etiquette, it’s basically a free-for-all. What Goldsworthy and others desire is a controlled tourist operation, whereby commercial gain can be extracted from these visitors, while at the same time protecting the birds.
It’s a model that’s been utilised in a town just up the coast—a place that has been adopted by penguins and which, in a begrudging kind of way, has sort of learned to accept that fact.
Every spring for seven years, an elderly couple living in Oamaru rang the Department of Conservation to complain about the noisy, smelly, blue penguins nesting under their house. There was nothing the department could do. They advised the couple to block up holes so the penguins couldn’t get in, but once the birds started nesting, their hands were tied.
Then, one year, the penguins stopped coming to the house. The local DOC ranger at the time fielded the call, just as he had every one for the past seven years—it was the elderly couple again, this time demanding to know where ‘their’ penguins were.
This complex relationship between blue penguins and locals is reflected all around New Zealand coasts. Blue penguins are the world’s smallest penguin, and unlike their shy yellow-eyed neighbours, they have no problem nesting around humans or making use of convenient man-made structures. Under floorboards, inside ventilation ducts, behind stacked objects and beneath upturned dinghies—people find penguins in all sorts of places.
But not only are blue penguins noisy and smelly, they’re also very bad tempered. Oamaru, it’s fair to say, has not always embraced them. In fact, penguins that crossed the city’s streets at night were once considered fair game for passing cars. When the quarry on the beach at the north end of town closed down in the mid-1980s, penguins began using that area to breed, to the chagrin of some locals. The town’s mayor of the time is famously on record describing the penguins as “trespassers”.
Eventually, however, the council recognised the tourism potential of the penguins. The quarry was turned into an artificial breeding colony, a viewing structure was erected, and the town hasn’t looked back. Today the Oamaru Blue Penguin colony attracts 75,000 visitors a year and is the town’s top tourist attraction.
From the viewing platform at the colony, scientist Philippa Agnew and I look out on a dirty sea clogged with hunks of kelp.
“Sometimes the water is brown out to the horizon,” Agnew tells me. “You know our birds are going to be having a really hard time out there.”
In this kind of water, schools of baitfish break up and penguins struggle to find prey in the murky conditions. When the sea is rough, Agnew sees a dramatic decline in the numbers of birds coming ashore, and that can have devastating consequences for the chicks’ survival. In 2015, a prolonged June storm resulted in a 37 per cent decrease in nest numbers.
Agnew is also concerned about the impact climate change is having on weather patterns. Studies predict we’ll see more frequent and more intense storm events in the future, and these could pose a threat to penguins along our coasts.
The colony is a village of artificial nest boxes set amid neatly cropped grass and well-tended trees. In a specially built room, visitors can peer down through glass windows into the living room of penguins going about their daily lives.
Research at the Blue Penguin Colony has provided a wealth of valuable scientific data, but the popularity of these birds with tourists can be problematic. In order to protect penguins from the traffic around the colony, a tunnel has been constructed and its entrance walled off by a corrugated iron fence, designed to prevent the penguins being spooked by movement above.
The new fence has not gone down well with the local community and social media is abuzz. Even the mayor has waded into the debate. “‘It has to go!’” he writes on his mayoral Facebook page. Outside the Blue Penguin Colony, city officials court reporters and photographers in front of the offending structure, the sea breeze whipping at their crisply ironed ties.
The somewhat ludicrous furore around the fence seems symbolic of a deeper discontent around the colony’s existence.
As evening falls, I follow a busload of tourists into the grandstands. Orange floodlights illuminate the area as the guide begins her commentary. Just after sunset, the first raft of blue penguins arrive, as if on cue, waddling up the steep bank and past the “premium” stand ($45 a ticket) where 30 or 40 heads silently turn to follow the birds’ progress as they enter the colony.
Outside, groups of tourists are positioned along the road in the darkness. Penguins come ashore all along the town’s waterfront and many tourists are aware of places they can view penguins for free. Agnew and others are out here, trying their best to keep birds and people safe.
I see a penguin pop up on the road’s edge, stark in the headlights of an oncoming car, which grinds to a halt. Another car flies past at speed and the penguin scuttles for shelter under the first one. Meanwhile a knot of onlookers has congregated around the terrified bird, reaching to photograph the chaotic moment.
Meanwhile, in the quiet, deserted back alleys of Oamaru’s historic Victorian precinct—under pieces of railway junk, in the mouth of drains, under access ramps to disused doorways—penguins make themselves at home. I hear them greeting each other, their whirring coos and exuberant screeches resounding around the walls of the storied old town.
The town and the bird, it seems, share similar virtues. Both small, charismatic and opinionated—and perhaps just too similar to get along easily.
Half bird, half fish, a penguin is like no other creature on Earth. From birds like Waimanu that dived the coastlines of Paleocene New Zealand, the modern penguin has emerged: its body squatter, bill and wings shorter, and feathers tightly matted together to keep the bird warm in the heat-sucking darkness of the deep ocean. Inside the body, more adaptations against the cold—the humeral plexus (a nexus of veins and arteries diverting heat from the wing tips to the core) and a layer of subcutaneous fat to insulate the body.
I’m peering over the shoulder of University of Otago masters student Marcus Richards as he dissects a tawaki carcass on loan from the Otago museum.
With feathers and skin stripped off, the mechanics of the bird become apparent: red flesh moulded into bone, tendons and ligaments stripped bare to reveal their purpose. The front of the animal is its powerhouse—two great wedges of muscle divided by the longest sternum in relation to body size of any bird.
Compared with other birds, penguins are sleeker, gruntier beasts. Their bones are not the lightweight kite frames of aerial birds, but dense structures befitting an animal that has adapted to fly through a medium at least 800 times as dense as air.
It’s these heavily built bones that allow the penguin to penetrate the ocean. The current dive record is held by an emperor penguin, whose depth recorder expired as the bird rocketed past the 500-metre mark.
While their close relatives, the albatrosses and petrels, plunge beneath the waves in quick moments of bold impunity, penguins appear at ease underwater, fluid and weightless. What gives the penguins such extraordinary speed and agility in the water is their wing: “One of the most highly specialised body parts in biology,” according to Richards.
Whereas the wing bones of flying birds exist mainly to give shape to the feathers of flight, the bones of a penguin wing are the flying instrument itself, flattened to a blade.
Marcus shows me the intricacies of the wing, how the delicate puppetry of the tendons control pitch and angle, giving the bird immaculate movement.
Lift, of the kind required by a bird in flight, is of no use to neutrally buoyant penguins, so the wing is dedicated solely to thrust. Whereas most birds gain thrust only on the downstroke, penguins get it on the upstroke as well, essentially doubling their power generation.
Yet, despite trading so much of its ‘bird-ness’ for a life in the oceans, the need to breed and moult draws penguins back to land, where they walk, like Hans Christian Andersen’s mermaid, on metaphorical knives.
It’s on land that penguins are at their most vulnerable. This, someone explained to me, is probably why they’re so bad tempered. Introduced predators, tourist disturbance and dog attacks have all taken a heavy toll on New Zealand’s penguins.
“There’s no such thing as a controlled dog,” Massey scientist John Cockrem tells me. Dogs on beaches, according to Cockrem, are one of the worst threats facing blue penguins.
His patch is the Taranaki coast, where he hopes artificial breeding colonies can reverse a decline in numbers. But penguins in this area may face an even greater threat—a proposed ironsand dredging operation in the Taranaki Bight. Cockrem is deeply concerned about the impact dredging will have on water clarity and the penguins’ ability to forage.
“It’s the largest area of relatively shallow water off the west coast of the North Island,” he tells me. “They clearly need to go to that region to feed during the breeding season.”
As this article goes to print, the dredging proposal is still under discussion, although the Department of Conservation has announced it will not oppose the project.
Meanwhile, yellow-eyed penguins on the Otago Peninsula and Stewart Island have suffered a major decline since at least the 1990s.
“We know that juvenile survival is correlated with how fat they are when they get in the sea,” says researcher Mel Young, who is trying to unravel the reasons for this crash. “We’re seeing the chicks getting lighter and lighter.”
Yellow-eyed penguins are specialist bottom-feeders, and rising sea-surface temperatures and the increased stratification this causes may mean less food is reaching the sea floor. Pollution, by-catch in fishing nets and disturbance to the sea floor by trawling and dredging have also been suggested as contributing to the decline. Studies on Stewart Island have shown the negative effect that intensive dredging of the seabed in Foveaux Strait is likely to be having on yellow-eyed penguin breeding success there.
In addition, several mysterious mass-mortality events have devastated the population in Otago. Nest numbers have now dropped so drastically that some researchers fear for the continued existence of yellow-eyed penguins on the mainland.
In order to get a feel for the human impact of this decline, photographer Richard Robinson and I head out to Penguin Place, a private sanctuary established by farmer Howard McGrouther on the Otago Peninsula in 1985. The sanctuary protects three private, pest-controlled beaches that have been revegetated.
Tour guide Adrian Foote leads us down a trench to a viewing hide, where a single penguin can be seen on its eggs, forlornly waiting for its mate to return from the sea.
Fifteen years ago, Penguin Place had 50 nests along its three beaches. This year, they’re down to four. A big part of his job these days, Foote explains, is managing tourist expectations.
“People come to have a good time; they don’t want to leave feeling depressed. We have to try and make them realise how special it is to see just one of these birds.”
Yellow-eyed penguins are worth an estimated $1.7 million to the Otago region and privately, Foote says, tourist operators on the peninsula are “pretty anxious”. Seeing a family’s long-time business under threat makes you realise how profoundly changing oceanic conditions can impact on people’s lives.
“Something needs to happen out there,” Foote says, looking across the dunes to the undulating sea. “And that’s at a legislative level, not in the hands of a private company.”
There’s a saying in mātauranga Māori: “He kororā, he tohu oranga—the penguin is the sign of life.”
It’s a proverb soundly supported by science. Because penguins are tied to the land during the breeding season and therefore restricted to a small foraging area, and because they conveniently clamber out of the sea where we can observe and study them, they are among the best indicators we have of regional ocean health.
“Penguins are top predators,” says Thomas Mattern. “If you see a change in penguins due to food sources, you know that the entire food web below them is in disarray.”
Having survived extreme climate variation and seismic changes to oceanic circulation in their 60-million-year history, penguins are nothing if not adaptable. The big question is whether penguins can keep up with the speed of environmental change occurring today.
In another era, as global war raged in Europe, Lance Richdale was spending long hours, days and weeks out on the wind-whipped basalt of the Otago Peninsula observing penguins. Richdale, an agricultural teacher by trade, had become fascinated by seabirds and was devoting all his spare time to their study and protection. Over 16 years, he continuously observed the same yellow-eyed penguin colony, banding birds so he was able to recognise individuals—the first time this technique had been used.
The result of his work, a book called Sexual Behavior in Penguins, swept the scientific world off its feet, even gracing the pages of Time magazine. The publication was reviewed by Robert Cushman Murphy, himself one of the greatest ornithologists of the 20th century:
“No paper in the history of science has involved such continuous, intimate and long-term recording of the behaviour of wild animals,” he wrote.
Continuous, intimate, long term—these are not easy goals for scientists to achieve, especially when the study subjects gather in remote and inhospitable places.
Back in Dunedin, I meet up with yellow-eyed penguin scientist Chris Muller on his way to Enderby Island, where he and I worked the previous season. This year, he says, he’s trialing a drone and heat-sensing camera, in the hope these tools will make finding those elusive yellow-eyed nests just a little bit easier.
I can’t help feeling envious of him heading back to the island, but at the same time, I know he and his assistant are in for an exhausting few months in demanding conditions. That’s what it takes to get meaningful data—it’s the “continuous, intimate and long term” bit that good science demands.
More than half a century since Richdale’s pioneering study, we have only just begun to understand penguin lives, and in this regard, New Zealand has a globally important role to play.
“We’re the penguin hotspot of the world,” Mel Young tells me. “I don’t think that’s really clear to most New Zealanders. We have more penguin species in our waters than any other country in the world, so we’ve got a massive responsibility.
“They’re seen as these cute, fluffy things that you can go on holiday and take pictures of, but really, they’re on the knife’s edge.”