“Yellow-eyed aren’t like other penguins. They are scared to death of EVERYTHING!” our guide, Chris Roberts from ‘Back to Nature Tours’ tells us. It’s getting close to sunset and we are walking down a deserted beach on the Otago Peninsula in New Zealand. In the surf, I can see small heads popping up and scanning the beach for potential predators. At our height, we are included in the “scary-things” category and so we sit down in the sand to patiently wait and see if the penguins will be brave enough to come ashore. Shortly, we are rewarded for our patience by a beautiful penguin that makes his way out of the surf and up the beach. My first Yellow-eyed Penguin.
Yellow-eyed penguins (Megadyptes antipodes) are fairly large, competing with the Magellanic penguin for fourth place in the large penguin competition. Unlike the Magellanics who are very social, often walking from burrow to burrow to invite their neighbors to go for a swim, the Yellow-eyed are solitary. They approach the shore warily. Once on the beach they scan repeatedly for threats with their excellent eyesight before making a mad dash for the safety of the beach grasses where their young wait. When they encounter a human they run as if the hounds of hell themselves were upon them, often falling and madly flailing their flippers. It’s heart wrenching to see especially after working with other penguin species like the Gentoo who will snuggle against you if you just lay down near the colony or Rockhoppers who try to untie your shoe laces if you aren’t paying attention. Yellow-eyed’s just want to be left alone.
That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t try to see them! The penguins are a major tourist draw in New Zealand. Armed with a bit of knowledge you can have a viewing experience that doesn’t negatively affect these beautiful birds. There are several groups who have placed blinds, tunnels and huts for tourists to get up close without the penguins knowing it. If you do happen to find a penguin on a beach without a viewing blind, sit down immediately to lower your profile, keep your voices soft and low, avoid making quick gestures and wait for the penguin to move away at his own comfortable pace. Stay on existing trails around beaches and coastal woodlands to avoid surprising an unsuspecting penguin and leave your dogs at home.
Yellow-eyed Penguin Links:
Back to Nature Tours, Dunedin
The Penguin Place, Otago Peninsula
The Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust , Otago Peninsula
Coastline Tours, Oamaru
1. Yellow-eyed Penguin scanning the beach from the safety of the beach grass
2. Penguin in the surf looking for a spot to get on the beach
3. Penguins walking up the beach, they kept their eye on the person in the distance who was standing but barely gave us a glance as we lay in the sand quietly watching
4. First things first, a good stretch is in order after getting out of the ocean