Wildlife extravaganza on the Otago Peninsula

The Otago Peninsula is a marine biology paradise, and is credited with being the wildlife capital of New Zealand. There are penguins, seals, seabirds including albatrosses, whales, beaches, and an aquarium all within a 40 minute drive from central Dunedin. I envy people who have a house in one of the Peninsula communities. For the next few weeks, I am housesitting for my supervisor while she is in holiday. Their house is located in Mcandrew Bay, one of the first communities that you reach after arriving on the Peninsula. The house, like most New Zealand homes, has no central heating. However, there is a heat pump in the lounge along with a wood burning stove. Once the fire is going, it’s not so bad, and can get quite toasty. Unfortunately, the rest of the house is freezing. My new roommate is Ali; the epileptic cat, who receives medicine twice a day in the form of crushed pills and fancy feast cat chow. Ali will let you know when it’s feeding time by being the most annoying cat you have ever seen. And she must be watched during dinner time. I have caught her up on the countertops snooping for extra food. She’s very pleasant the rest of the time, taking time to sleep on your lap in front of the evening fire. All in all, I have gone from one extreme (noisy dorm) to the other (isolated single family home) in living arrangements.
The community

View from the front of the house

Mcandrew Bay Beach 

My roommate, Ali the cat

I spent the weekend touring around the Peninsula and here are some of the highlights. 
Sandfly Bay – Sea lion Central

Sandfly Bay is where the tourists go to see the rare New Zealand Yellow eyed penguin and the New Zealand sea lion or Hooker’s sea lion I arrived around 4:30 PM and encountered at least 15 sea lions lounging away on the beach. From a distance, they look like huge logs until they move. And they can move fast even on sand. You do not want to be between the water and a galumphing sea lion. Sea lions come to the beach to rest after deep water foraging expeditions.

I also saw two Yellow-eyed penguins. The first was seen from the penguin hide, which is a shack at the end of the beach that tourists camp out in to wait for the penguins to come ashore at dusk. I watched that one for a while before heading back up the beach. Then I spotted something in the water that looked like a bird. I waited around a while, and sure enough, it was a penguin. So I backed off a bit and it finally came ashore and took off up the beach. Those things can waddle pretty fast. They won’t come ashore if you are too close, that’s why the penguin hide was constructed. This allows for viewing the penguins without disturbing their natural behavior.

Sandfly Bay  

 New Zealand Sea Lion

Stupid tourists

New Zealand Yellow-eyed Penguin
Royal Albatross Centre – Bird Paradise
This awesome place is located at the end of the Otago Peninsula at Taiaroa Head and is the only mainland breeding colony of any albatross species in the southern hemisphere. These are amazing birds to see in flight. Their wingspan measures over 3 meters (9.5 feet). Since it was June, I decided to take the guided tour up to the observatory to view the nests and chicks. The Centre operates year around, but viewing is limited during the breeding season (September-October). Adult albatrosses arrive at the colony in September to re-form pair bonds and to build the nest. The males arrive first and begin to build the nest in preparation for the arrival of the females. The females inspect the nest and will fix it if necessary, or will build a new nest if she is unsatisfied with the nest he built. Sounds a bit like humans, right? Eggs are laid in November and chicks hatch in mid-January to mid-February. Parents share incubation duties for 11 weeks. Some of the more inexperienced couples have their egg taken away and replaced with a dummy egg until they learn how to sit on it properly without breaking it. Hatching can take up to 3 days while the chick emerges from its shell. Nest guarding occurs in March in which the parents take turns feeding and sitting on the chick for the first month or so. By mid-June, the chicks are old enough and have put on enough weight that the parents do not remain at the nest constantly. They spend the majority of their time foraging and bring food back to the chicks. The chicks are still very fluffy, but begin to develop their adult feathers. They begin to become more active during this period in preparation for fledging. Chicks fledge in September, and will not return for 4-6 years. The parents only return to the colony every other year to breed. The oldest breeding female that the colony has seen
was 63 and was known as “Grandma.”

During my visit to the observatory, there were five chicks within the viewing range. There was also a huge group of Stewart Island Shags below the chicks. During the viewing period, several adult albatrosses flew by the observatory. The chicks mainly sat around. They are large birds; the largest chick this season weighs over 9 kg at the moment. They will have to lose some weight before September when it’s time to leave the breeding colony.


The Centre also offers a fabulous visitor’s center with a ton of information on the history and wildlife of Taiaroa Head. Adult albatrosses can also be seen flying from the parking lot.
5 month old chick  


Lifesize chick models 

Soaring adult                                                       


Jane Goodall Lecture

Thursday June 23 2011

Sponsored by the University of Otago’s Department of Zoology


My tale about the Jane Goodall lecture actually begins a few weeks prior to the event when the ticket reservation system opened. Tickets to this event were a hot item. The zoology department advertised that they were going on sale June 1 at 8:30 AM. By the time I arrived around 8:00, there was already a small line of maybe 12 people. However, it turns out that there were only 7 tickets available for the live lecture. That’s right 7! Since I wasn’t at the very front of the line, I was unable to secure a ticket to the theater where she would actually be speaking. I was able to secure a ticket to one of the satellite locations that was going to stream the lecture. But the ticket finding story doesn’t end there. Apparently, zoology had set aside 50 live tickets for science alumni from the University of Otago. So if you were a graduate from one of the science departments, you could request a ticket. Luckily, one the PhD students in my lab recently completed her undergraduate degree in chemistry and had no interest in attending. Therefore, I managed to get one of the coveted live tickets. I found out later that the event was streamed to 2000 people spread over 9 lecture theaters, making it the largest public lectures that the University has done.


The lecture began with a traditional Maori greeting, similar to the one that preceded the Zumba master class with Beto back in April. Dr. Goodall spoke for a good 45 minutes about how she got started in Gombe National Park in the 1960s. Currently, her work is focused on conservation efforts, and she spends up to 300 days a year traveling promoting sustainable practices and awareness.


She gave an inspiring talk about how a girl with no money and no degree set out to accomplish her dreams of working with animals in Africa. At this time, Africa was considered a closed continent and women were not scientists. She started as a secretary and later met anthroplogist Dr. Louis Leakey who selected her to study social behavior of chimpanzees in the Gombe reserve in Tanzania in 1960. It took one year of observing the chimps for one of them to approach her and two years for her to be considered part of the community. Talk about your field work dedication. I complain every time my computer crashes. Eventually, Leakey instructed her she would need to get a degree, but there was no time to get a BA, she would have to go straight to a PhD, which she earned from Cambridge in 1965. She credits her mother for giving her support during her adventures, even going along with her during one of her early trips to work with the chimpanzees. She stated that her mother was the real hero because while Goodall was out in the field observing chimp behavior, her mother remained behind in the camp, where she became a sort of field nurse, treating wounds and illnesses of the locals. Her mother became known as the white witch doctor.

She concluded her talk with a message of hope. She stated that she encounters many young scientists and students who are frustrated, pessimistic, or apathetic about the future. She maintains that as long as people have ideas and the willingness to go after them, then anything is possible. She spent some time talking about her Roots and Shoots movement, which helps people set themselves up to be part of the solution for a sustainable world. This program is mainly at aimed at children, but there are adult chapters too. In conclusion, this was one of the best lectures I have attended and I am very thankful I had the opportunity to do so.


A final note. To top it all off, I may have walked right by Lucy Lawless (AKA Xena Warrior Princess) on my way into the lecture theater. She has blogged about the event and she was in the same theater I was.


Tramping in New Zealand, Part 2

Outfitting your walk.

For tramping in New Zealand, you need some special gear to have a good hike. Here are some of my favorite tips.


  • Hike in layers. I usually tramp in merino wool baselayers because they don’t smell after you have been sweating in them for a few days. I also carry a micro-fleece top. For bottoms, get a pair of those cheesy zip-off nylon pants. Also use decent hiking socks such as merino wool.
  • Invest in a good raincoat, preferably one that is longer than hip length. Get one with Gore-tex or e-Vent waterproofing. Make sure it’s industrial strength as the NZ bush will tear it apart. As I write this, my jacket is currently being repaired in Christchurch because my pack was rubbing through the liner.
  • Good broken-in hiking boots. Again, make sure they are waterproof and have good support because NZ’s trails are hard on the feet.


  • For NZ, you probably don’t need a pack bigger than 60-70 liters, unless you carry a tent. The backcountry hut system is great. I use a Gregory Deva 60 and have been very happy with it. It’s comfortable, has lots of pockets, and I can wear it for hours without getting sore.
  • Pack liner. Never tramp without one. New Zealand’s weather changes every 5 minutes. If you have a pack liner then your stuff will stay dry during that freak rainshower.
  • Pack cover. These are not as effective as the liner, but they help protect the outside of your pack.

Other necessary gear

  • Hiking poles. They take the pressure off of your knees on the downhill portion of tracks. They are also incredibly useful for balancing on rocky trails and for measuring how deep mud is before you step in it. My first pair was sacrificed to the mud gods on Stewart Island.
  • Gaiters. These keep your socks dry when you are tramping through knee deep mud.
  •  Insect repellent. Necessary for tramps in Fiorland because of those nasty sandflies. Get something with DEET and use it.
  • Sun hat, sunscreen, & sunglasses. The sun is intense down here so be prepared for extra UV light hitting your face all day long.
  • Food. This is one time you are allowed to eat all of things you’re not supposed to. This includes lots of chocolate and power bars. Tramping burns a ton of calories and I have experienced calorie crashes in the afternoon. They are not fun. Fuel your body properly

Avoid at all costs

  • Jeans and cotton. I saw people on the Tongariro Crossing in jeans and I wanted to smack them. They are heavy and if they get wet they never dry. It’s a good way to get hypothermia.
  • Carrying too much weight. Try to keep your pack as small as possible and you will have a much better hike. I speak from experience.

Tramping in New Zealand is a great way to see the country, but do yourself a favor and prepare for it. I can’t wait to start again as soon as my raincoat is sent back.

Paul, Katie, and I get ready to tackle to NW Circuit
with the appropriate gear.

Tramping in New Zealand for Dummies

Tramping in New Zealand Part 1

Tons of details for you hiking fans.

In previous posts, I have briefly covered some of the differences between hiking in the States vs. tramping in New Zealand, but I decided that a proper overview is in order.

Hut System

New Zealand has this fabulous network of backcountry huts that are all over the country. By staying in one of these, you do not have to carry a tent or a mat with you. Huts vary in terms of amenities and upkeep. For example, huts on the Great Walks are staffed by rangers, have water for cooking, flush toilets, gas cookers, huge lounges, and decent bunkrooms. There are more like lodges without showers. Contrast that with some of the more remote backcountry huts that may only have bunks provided.

Prince William Hut                                     Bungaree Hut
Raikura Track                                               Northwest Circuit

Bunk room                                                      Lounge
Routeburn Track

Official descriptions from the DOC

  • Walking Track
    • Gentle walking up to a day
    • The day hikes I did in Queenstown fall into this category.
  • Tramping Tracks
    • Great Walks/Easy tramping tracks
      • Moderate day hikes or multi-day tramping. Tracks are well formed, well-marked, and suitable for people with moderate fitness and limited backcountry skills.
      • These tramps are similar to what you would find in a U.S. National Park.
      • The Milford track, the Routeburn track, and the Rakiura track fall here.
      •  Many of these walks are very popular during the tramping season (November-April), and must be booked ahead of time. The really popular ones, like the Milford, book out months in advance.
    • Tramping track
      • Challenging multi-day hiking. More difficult than the Great Walks.
      • Trails can be very steep, rough, and muddy. The tracks have markers or poles. Suitable for people with moderate fitness and backcountry experience is required including navigation and survival skills.
      • The Northwest Circuit on Steward Island falls into this category.
  • Route
    • Very challenging multi-day tramping. Suitable for people with above average fitness. High level of backcountry skills and self-sufficiency required.
    • Tracks are unformed, muddy, steep, and may require the use of chains. These tramps have unabridged stream crossings.
    • The Cascade Saddle and the Dusky track fit here.

 My very biased definitions of the tramps.

  •  Walking Track
    • These are your typical dayhikes that most people with a reasonable fitness level can complete. These can last from an hour to a few hours. They make for good training hikes before tackling the multi-day tramps.
  •  Great Walks
    • Suitable for people of average fitness? I sense a bit of a disconnect in definitions here. The Milford track was no walk in the park. My group was very lucky in that it didn’t rain that much. Things would have really sucked had it rained like it normally does in Fiorland.
    • Well formed trails? Again, the Milford track defies this in that many sections were rocky and slippery. My feet were pretty sore for most of this trip.
    • Sandflies make things more difficult as you are trying to swat and walk at the same time.

Rocky trails
The Milford Track

Rocky areas
The Routeburn Track

  • Tramping Track
    • Moderate Fitness? Try super-duper fitness. The NW Circuit would be suitable for people who like obstacle courses like the Navy Seals. This tramp would make an excellent training ground, especially when it rains the mud can be waist deep. Not to mention the sandflies make things much more interesting.
    • Some of these trails would not be allowed in U.S. National Parks. Too much of a liability risk.

Sunsest, NW Circuit
The best part of this hike.

  • Route
    • I’m not even going to go there. For those of you that do, be prepared for a true wilderness experience.

 To be continued.