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3-4 March 2015. The albatross is a bird of majestic proportions. With a wingspan of three metres they are the largest sea bird, and they own the wild ocean skies: riding the thermals, diving down for food, resting on the water, lifting up into the air again, never touching land. The vast expanse of the open sea and sky is their home. They are more than sailors, being on the ocean for four to six years after their very first launch into the sweeping sky from the nest where they hatched. They are master navigators. They fly as much as 190,000 kilometres a year. They are good luck. They are bad luck.

If an albatross follows a boat it is thought to bring good fortune. In the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the mariner shoots the albatross, the boat undergoes many misfortunes, and the mariner is blamed. His guilt is the albatross around his neck, the burden he carries. It is a cautionary tale of some magnitude. Don’t destroy that which brings you good fortune or you will carry the burden to the end of your days.

Most albatross breed on remote islands, and spend eighty-five percent of their lives at sea. There is a small breeding colony at Pukekura (Taiaroa Head) on New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula near Dunedin. We enter the blind up on the hill, and through the glass, at a distance, we can see the downy chicks on the grass below us.

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They are about one month old. We see the parents swooping in to feed them. Nine months after hatching, with the aid of a strong wind, the chicks will take off to the ocean and the boundless skies. Mature adults return to land to breed every two years, staying nearly one year to breed and raise a chick, and then returning to the open ocean for the alternate year.

Later in the day we take a boat ride out around the end of the peninsula. The day is overcast and cool, and the water choppy, but the boat, which has an open bow, is sturdy enough. We don all our layers and face the wind and water without hesitation, inhaling the salt air. The boat rocks back and forth as we pass close by the rugged coast of Taiaroa Head, spotting cormorants and other sea birds, and a harem of fur seals basking on the rocks.

Soon we are out past the Head and on open water. Suddenly it seems we are surrounded by albatross, the Northern Royal albatross of Pukekura and two other species. It’s an exhilarating experience to watch their command of the sea and sky. In the most silent way they shout an instinctive grace and perfect oneness with their environment. We are spellbound.

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Since 1938, when the first chick successfully fledged, thanks to the devotion and almost constant attention of one Dr Lance Richdale, the colony of Northern Royal albatross at Pukekura has been studied and protected, resulting in the longest continual study and protection of any animal population in the world. The colony, now grown to one hundred birds, is comprehensively managed by the Department of Conservation to ensure its survival and growth.

Otago Peninsula spreads east and then gradually curves north from Dunedin.The landscape doesn’t have the insistent spectacular magnificence of the mountains around Te Anau and Fiordland National Park, but it has its own beauty, serene and soft on a pearl-grey day. 

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Driving slowly along the winding coast road we encounter boatsheds and fishing boats,

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rugged hills, sandy beaches, sheltered bays. We stop and watch the easy grace of a heron as it lands on the rocks close by, and later from a short distance observe a large conference of more than twenty cormorants on one of the boatshed docks.

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Walking alone along the shore near Taiaroa Head we come across fur seals and a white-faced heron.

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The world’s most endangered penguin is about average in height, for a penguin. Not as small as the tiny Fairy penguins, nor as large as the giant Emperors, they are the fourth tallest penguin with an average height of about 70 centimetres. They are unique to New Zealand, and can be seen along the southern part of the east coast of the South Island, including Otago Peninsula, and on two islands to the south. They are unlike other penguins in two significant ways. They are not social so do not breed and nest in colonies, but instead prefer to be hidden from their neighbours. They like their privacy, so they nest in dense coastal forests and scrub. And they have yellow eyes.

Photo by Don Read

Photo by Don Read



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As we creep, bent over and silent, on a stealthy exploration through the bush, concealed by scrub and trenches, our guide points them out. They are solitary – one here, one there, hidden in amongst the low-hanging foliage of the trees.

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Yellow-eyed penguins, like all penguins, molt. All their feathers. Every year. I had no idea about this and find it a quite startling fact. They spend two or three weeks gorging themselves, diving deep for fish, to gain reserves of fat. Then they stand on land for three to four weeks while the old feathers fall away, and new ones come in. During this time they barely move, and do not eat. They lose about two kilos in weight.

Suddenly our guide indicates we should stop, and there ahead of us are a couple standing together molting.

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They are so still. The guide points to a spot where the ground is covered with feathers indicating the two had recently moved about three metres. That’s it. They barely move for about four weeks. It seems extraordinary. Nature is extraordinary. It never would have occurred to me that penguins stand on shore for a month while all their feathers fall out and new ones grow to replace them because the old ones no longer provide the necessary insulation. I suppose it makes sense, that with all that time spent in the water their feathers would get worn out, like an old sweater, but if I’d thought about it at all I’d have assumed they replaced feathers more or less continually, a few at a time, like other birds. Instead, all activity stops for a month and they simply stand. Presumably it is as natural to them as diving for fish.

 

We have a morning routine on moving days that has become streamlined with much repetition: get up, wash and dress, make breakfast and lunches in the hostel kitchen, pack the car and head out. There’s an easy efficiency to it that usually has us on the road by about ten o’clock.

From Dunedin we drive to Wanaka, just a little north of Queenstown, and think we’ve arrived back in Canada. Lake Wanaka, with its trees and beaches, and surrounding mountains and vineyards, is so like the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia we could as easily be in Vernon or Kelowna where we frequently used to spend our summer holidays.

We’ve definitely arrived back into sunny weather.

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And in the warm evening down by the water: a sweet time watching the newest generation of mallards:

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Next post: All about my ongoing quest to be enough.






All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.