Life can be tough when you’re a blue penguin. For starters, you are no taller than a house cat and weigh less than 2 pounds. That means many other creatures—rats, ferrets and wild dogs, to name a few—view you as a tasty snack.
Thanks also to your small stature, the humans rolling along in their SUVs have trouble seeing you as you waddle across the road. To top it all off, even seemingly harmless hedgehogs want to steal your eggs.
Philippa Agnew sees it firsthand. As a research scientist at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony on New Zealand’s South Island, it is her job to study these lovable birds, who happen to be the smallest penguins on the planet. That said, she’s dedicated her life to making sure they thrive in their natural habitat of New Zealand and Australia.
A few years ago she noticed a certain penguin colony returned home each night only to meander across a busy intersection and hold up traffic. Her aha moment: Why not build the birds a tunnel that would shuttle them from the coast all the way back to the nesting site? It wasn’t long before she was rallying people together to build an 80-foot tunnel underneath Waterfront Road.
“We fenced an area at the top of the tunnel so the penguins didn’t use their usual route,” she says. “Then, we used a combination of lighting, some penguin calls and a little bit of ushering and eventually the penguins saw that they could go through the tunnel and started using it.”
Just down the road at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony, where I’ve come to meet them myself, there are even more penguins. A colony of about 350 Little Blues, as they are affectionately called, nest here in what can only be described as a penguin neighborhood.
On this particular morning, I get to play research scientist, checking each penguin abode—a small wooden, Hobbitlike structure—to see who’s caring for chicks or molting. We find a dozen or so residents who are snuggled up in their nests. The others are out to sea catching their daily intake of fish.
The first thing I notice is that the penguins’ plumage really is a lovely shade of indigo unlike any other penguin in the world. The second is that for such pipsqueaks they can squawk up a storm.
A sanctuary not a zoo
“The penguins are wild, coming and going naturally, they leave the colony before it gets light in the morning and return from sea at night as it starts getting dark in the evening,” Agnew says. “We protect them from introduced predatory mammals and human disturbance, we also provide them with space to nest and nesting boxes to breed in.”
When dusk rolls around, I make my way to the stadium seating, along with dozens of other tourists from around the world. By 8:30 p.m., the crowd goes silent as a few penguins pop out of the ocean and wobble home. With their distinctive Quasimodo-like stoop, beaks pointed down to the ground, it is not only unique—since all other penguins walk upright—but highly entertaining.
Thankfully, catching a glimpse of their antics is quite easy; they faithfully return to the same spot every night of the year, sometimes in the hundreds during summertime.
Everything else going on in this dreamlike setting only adds to the fun factor. Huge waves crash against the rocky coast. Hundreds of spotted shags glide above, their graceful bodies elegantly silhouetted against a pale pink sunset.
Close to shore, several fur seals lounge like it’s their only duty in life (although locals say there is one rebel who sometimes hops the fence and heads into the viewing stands). We name them and do the international arm pump for “yessssss!” when they yawn or scratch their bellies for the camera.
Enjoyable, yes, but all nightly penguins marches must come to an end. So, we tiptoe along the boardwalk past the penguin neighborhood of nesting boxes. And then, the pièce de résistance: We see one waddle its way into its home. Here, it will rest, preen and rustle its feathers to cool down after a long day of swimming and hunting for tasty fish snacks. Mission accomplished. We just witnessed the daily life of a penguin.
New Zealand seems to have more than its fair share of wildlife. Want an up-close view of albatrosses nesting? The Otago Region is home to The Royal Albatross Centre, the only mainland breeding colony of Royal Albatross birds in the world. For more penguin action, travel along the southeast coast of the South Island to find rare yellow-eyed penguins. Then, hop over to Kaikoura where it’s not hard to come across whales of all types and hundreds and hundreds of dusky dolphins, who specialize in backflips, twists and jumps.
The topography and a promise of adventure, is as much of a draw as the wildlife. Just south of Oamaru are the world famous Moeraki Boulders, a series of about 50 spheres that formed about 65 million years ago. The massive lumps of sediment were bound together by a mineral cement and now serve as an #NZmustdo. Near Wanaka you’ll find Mt Aspiring National Park, which as its name indicates is quite the stunner and perfect for hiking and jet-boating.
To the north and inland from Oamaru is the Waitaki Valley, a bastion of mountains and lakes. You can hang glide, soak in hot tubs, ski or snowboard in the winter and ride the Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail if you please. And in Dunedin, you can gaze upon murals across the city, mingle in hip restaurants and walk down the world’s steepest street.