Meeting the little blue penguin in Otago Peninsula

Visiting the blue penguin colony

I always like meeting new people in the new places we arrive with the vessel or while on holiday. The locals can be the best guides and they can offer you all the information you need in order to make the best of your visit. Moreover, I always considered the locals as the best sources for tips and recommendation and their help is even more valuable when the visit is very short.

When you have only a few hours to visit a city, you need more than just a very good plan to move around. You need also some kind of help which can make your visit easy to accomplish and worthwhile.

Since I started travelling on board container vessels, our plans of going ashore and visit the surroundings of the ports are almost always based on a great deal of guide books and travelling magazines research. During the entering maneuverings, the pilots are the ones who update us with the latest information regarding the best places to eat out, to go shopping or to have fun and I always find this information very valuable, especially if our stay in the port is very short.

Most of the pilots like to socialize with us during the maneuvers and are very friendly and helpful. Some of them are very talkative offering us real geography and history lessons about the areas and also showing a lot of interest in our own stories. Very few pilots are not eager to share a conversation with us and are fully concentrated on their work.

The friendliest and most helpful pilot we have ever met was Hugh who came on board to guide our vessel inside Otago Harbour (Port Chalmers).

As the scenery was getting more and more interesting while we were proceeding inside the harbor,  Hugh showed and described to me the wonderful landscape on either sides. He told me about all the possibilities of going out and exploring the surroundings – where to have the best dinner in town, what to visit and where to spend some relaxing time.

When the vessel passed by Taiaroa Head, I found out that the small Pilot’s Beach situated at the foot of the hill has been hosting a small colony of blue penguins.

Pilot's Beach Otago PeninsulaPilot’s Beach

I have always taken a keen interest in penguins and I watched a lot of documentaries about these funny creatures during the last years. Although I do not like winter, I would love to go to Antarctica to see the Emperor, King, Adele or some other type of penguins in their own habitat and I really hope to have the chance of fulfilling my dream. Until then I will always enjoy watching these wonderful birds whenever I have the chance and I will try my best to make it possible. Exactly three years ago, another container vessel brought me to a small port in Patagonia, where lots of penguins are usually spending their breeding period, during the months of October and March. Unfortunately, we arrived there at the end of March, right at the end of the season and we only had the chance of observing (for a few minutes) one single Magellan Penguin.

After I confessed all this to our good pilot, Mr. Hugh, he came with a brilliant idea which left me almost speechless. “Why shouldn’t I take you both to see the blue penguins? We have plenty of time to get there and be back on the ship in only few hours”. The plan looked very nice and very exciting, from my perspective. It also looked nice from my husband’s ‘work and responsibility’ point of view, as cargo operations were to start only the next morning and this was  a wonderful opportunity to go out and enjoy the evening.

After a little more thinking, the pilot handed us his most incredible idea and offered us his car to drive to the beach alone, see the penguins and then come back to the port. As much as I didn’t want to cause any unnecessary trouble or difficulty, the offer was very tempting and made my heart pump with adrenaline. In a few seconds, I managed to calm down and started to think it through. A lot of worries came into my mind, but Mr. Hugh dissolved them one by one.

When I told him that the weather didn’t look too good and that it might rain, he assured me that “weather is changing every 5-10 minutes in this area and you should never worry about it … Anyhow, I will provide you with some warm jackets just in case.” I couldn’t believe what was happening. Before arriving at the pilot station, I only had had the option of going out to visit the small town of Port Chalmers and now I was planning a trip to watch penguins. It was incredible!

Another worry was about paying the entrance fee, as we didn’t have any local money, but Mr. Hugh knew all the answers. He assured me that credit cards are accepted at the centre and to make things even more real he took his phone and dialed the centre. Booking the tour (watching tour) was very easy and all we had to do was make sure to arrive on the spot at 7.30 p.m.

Our last, but biggest worry was driving on the wrong side of the road which we had never done before. But, our guardian angel with the name of Hugh, promised that driving on the left is not very difficult, especially in this area, with very little traffic … “So, where to start and test driving on the left for the first time if not on the beautiful Otago Peninsula?”

The decision was ours to take and the opportunity was so unique and exciting that we couldn’t refuse it. We accepted Mr. Hugh’s offer, jumped into his nice green car and started our ~ 40 km ride towards Taiaroa Head, the end of Otago Peninsula, having him as a driver for the first ~ 20 km. After passing through the beautiful city of Dunedin (without stopping), we continued driving on the ~20 km long Otago Peninsula, climbing the upper road which was following the shore. We had the opportunity of admiring the stunning view over the Otago Harbour and found the landscape breathtaking. The sun was still up, but the sky was partly covered in clouds, which offered the scenery a little of a dramatic image.






After we dropped Mr. Hugh at his house, we continued up hill. The scenery changed as soon as we passed on the other side of the hill and the immensity of the Pacific Ocean came into sight.



After few kilometers of a Swiss like climbing road, we changed the course again and we arrived on the left side of the hill, with a great view over the same Ortago Harbour. We even caught a glance of Port Chalmers and our vessel, under the huge gantries. The road was in a very good condition, but very narrow in some areas. Anyhow, the traffic was very calm and we met only few cars along the way.



We arrived at Taiaroa Head exactly on time and entered the Royal Albatross Centre to find other 25-30 persons waiting there to begin the tour. We paid the 25 NZ$ entrance fee and waited ~ 10 more minutes inside the centre until one guide appeared and started a short briefing. We found out interesting things about the Maori settlements in the area and about the life of blue penguinsthe world’s smallest penguins. Being only 30-35 centimeter tall, the blue penguin is very vulnerable to the predators and spends most of the time in the water where it feeds on fish. It comes ashore only after sunset to spend the night in the nest build under rocks, in hidden places. Pilot’s Beach is a protected area where these blue penguins come ashore and breed and this colony is getting bigger and bigger every year thanks to the work of a voluntary foundation called Pukekura Trust, which depend on the money the tourists are paying as fees.

As the penguins were to come out of the water only after sunset, we spent a little more time in the warm environment offered by the Royal Albatross Centre and we went out on the beach when the expecting time was the shortest possible. We followed the narrow path down and we arrived on the platform which was situated above the beach, where we positioned ourselves and commenced our waiting.

Waiting for the penguins at Pilot's Beach

Pilot's Beach - Otago Peninsula

A very cold wind was blowing outside and I couldn’t be more grateful to Mr. Hugh and his wife who had offered us some warm jackets to put on. Around us, only few people were dressed properly for the 10 degrees air temperature and the cold wind. Most of the tourists (especially women) were making huge efforts to resist the bitterness of the cold wind and were moving continuously, jumping from one foot to the other to stop the body from shivering. I was more than comfortable in my warm green jacket and I only wished I had had some warm gloves, too.

The sun had set for a while now and the beach was getting darker and darker. Over the harbor, the land was immersed in a gray like shadow and covered with black clouds.

Sunset over the Otago Harbour

The first penguin appeared out of the water at ~ 8.20 p.m. He looked a little scared and unsure on its moves, but this must have been the result of spending over 12 hours in the water, swimming and diving for food and fighting for survival. Step by step, the blue penguin managed to cross the beach and started its most difficult task of the day – climbing the small hill, through hundreds of obstacles having the shape of rocks and branches, in order to reach its safe place.

The little blue Penguin (1)

The little blue Penguin (2)

After few minutes, other penguins appeared out of the water, some of them in big groups of 6-7, others just in pairs. They were all determined to follow the same route as the first one – crossing the beach and climbing the small hill up to the safety of their nests – and they were all very eager to do this in a very short time.

The arrival of the penguins

The little blue penguin

As taking photos was allowed only without a flash, I found it very difficult to get good images of the small creatures. The place was packed with people – all of them trying their best to have a good shot – and only some positions were in advantage of a better light. I enjoyed following the tiny creatures struggling hard to reach their nests, all making their funny and well known moves of balancing from one feet to another, exactly as their taller brothers are doing  – I would have liked to go down and carry them one by one in order to save their energy. I preferred watch them for a few minutes and I didn’t bother much about taking photos in a very poor lighted environment. Finally, I managed to find a better lighted spot from where I was able to take some photos.

The little blue Penguin (3)

The little blue Penguin (5)

The little blue Penguin (6)

The little blue Penguin (7)

The little blue Penguin (4)

In less than half an hour more than 30 penguins arrived on the beach and went straight to their nests and few more were still arriving when we decided to put a stop to our visit and headed back to return the car to its owner. The way back towards Mr. Hugh’s home was not difficult as we managed to get our car in the middle of a line – formed by all the other tourists’ cars – and we drove back in group almost the entire time.

Back at Mr. Hugh’s house, we were invited to warm up a little before heading to the port and I enjoyed a very good hot chocolate (for which my body was much thankful) and a nice conversation with our hosts. I couldn’t image a better way of spending St. Patrick Day (evening) than sharing a drink with this wonderful couple and exchanging short life experience stories from around the world.

But, as all good things always come to an end (unfortunately too early), we had to get back to the ship and our hosts had to drive us to Port Chalmers. We followed the same route back, passing through the city of Dunedin – now almost asleep – and we arrived in Port Chalmers in less than half an hour. It didn’t matter much for me how long the journey was as I enjoyed a very nice conversation with our new friends and felt really good in the comfort of their car.

We said our goodbyes in front of the gate and departed with a feeling of sadness in my heart. We had spent a wonderful evening, we had seen penguins for the first time in their natural habitat and we met wonderful people, but now everything was over. I was sad because we hadn’t had the chance of spending more time in this wonderful region and with these wonderful people. It sometimes happens to us that we meet new people with whom we have a great time and feel a special kind of connection but we always have to leave them behind. We always hope to return, to see them again, but we do it very rarely because the world is so big – with lots of places to see and lots of new people to meet – and our time on Earth is so little.

We are really grateful to Mr. Hugh and his lovely wife for offering us the chance of exploring even a small part of the amazing Otago Peninsula and for welcoming us in their home. We had a wonderful time and enjoyed every minute of it to the full. Although at the beginning we were a little in doubt whether to take this opportunity or not, we are very glad that we finally listened to Mr. Hugh and accepted his invitation. And everything proved to be exactly as he said. It didn’t rain at all, the weather was great, the sunset over the harbor was incredible, the Albatross Centre welcome our credit card to pay for the entrance fee, watching the penguins was one of the most exciting experience of my entire life and even driving on the wrong side proved to be easier than expected. Mr. Hugh was right through the end. We spent an incredible evening and that was all thanks to him. Mr. Hugh, thank you!

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