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Visiting the World’s Smallest Penguins in Dunedin

Visiting the World’s Smallest Penguins in Dunedin

New Zealand is home to a spectacular array of wildlife – most of it bird life. The country actually has no native mammals except for one species of bat.

Originally, the island was populated by 3 metre tall birds called Moa, tiny nocturnal kiwibirds and two of the rarest species of penguin on earth.

While the Moa have gone extinct and the kiwibird has risen to fame as the country’s national animal, the penguins have lived with relatively little press.

I didn’t even know New Zealand had penguins.

But the moment I found out they did, I knew I had to go see them.


Penguins and New Zealand

New Zealand has two species of penguins: the yellow-eyed penguin (the rarest species) and the blue penguin (the smallest species). Although blue penguins, or fairy penguins as they call them in Australia, are less rare, they’re absolutely adorable.

Since the yellow-eyed ones are bigger and have somewhat freaky red eyes, I figured I’d stick with the little blue penguins.


A Bit More About Little Blue Penguins

Little blue penguins are fascinating creatures. They average 30cm tall and weigh under 10kg. They’re the size of most stuffed animals I had as a kid.

The penguins are named for the colour of their feathers. Their bellies are silver-white while their backs are a blue-slate grey.

These little birds struggle for survival because they’re total bad asses.

Moats and possums, invasive species in New Zealand, have been picking them off because their easier prey than rabbits or kiwibirds. Unlike most prey, they don’t run. These tiny, rotund birds stand their ground or even approach the predator.

Since they don’t have a natural defense against these species, it usually doesn’t end well for the little blue penguins.

Humans are also a big problem.

People destroy their habitat, separate their nests from direct access to the water, disorient them with headlights so they get lost or accidentally run them over.


Visiting Blue Penguins Now

Our view while waiting for the blue penguins.

Viewing the penguins coming home each night was almost a common pastime in New Zealand decades ago. Back then, there were no viewing platforms or charges to watch the little blue penguins waddle up the sandy shore to their nests.

But people were getting too close. There was no protection from predators. The blue penguins couldn’t be well monitored since they dig burrows for their nests.

Now, viewing blue penguins is regulated. There are some areas where you might see them without paying a fee. But most spots with large colonies are organized to protect the penguins.

The penguins live in nesting boxes that mimic their natural burrows, but with removable lids so they can be checked on. Light pollution is monitored so the penguins don’t get disoriented. Rabbit-proof fencing is used to prevent other prey from drawing predators to the area.

It’s working.

The populations of many colonies are growing. The one I visited in Dunedin has over 500 little blue penguins living in it now. A decade ago, that seemed like a dream.



My Penguin-Focused Trip

I visited Dunedin solely to see little blue penguins. It’s location on the Otago Peninsula makes it a prime penguin spotting location. Dunedin is also the only airport in the area, so it was the easiest spot for me to go to.

I wrote to six different penguin colony centres that run tours for months before I arrived. That wasn’t just expert planning on my part, it was procrastinating. Flights to Dunedin are more expensive since they run less frequently and take longer than most.

(Turns out waiting three extra months to save $100 on my flight was useless when I ended up paying $400 for cabs during my trip.)

Most centres have penguin sightings all year. While they can’t guarantee a sighting, I only found one that didn’t run its tours in the winter.

If they’re going to run the tours, there has to be a pretty decent chance you’ll see something.

Certain times of year are better to visit the penguins than others. It’s all based around their breeding season.

From late February – April, there is a lower chance of seeing penguins. The numbers are highest in the New Zealand summer.

I missed the summer season and went in early winter (late May). I was worried I wouldn’t see anything, but that wasn’t the case.


The Royal Albatross Centre Blue Penguin Tour

I booked my tour to see the blue penguins through the Royal Albatross Centre, a 45-minute drive outside of Dunedin. The tour cost $30 NZD per adult (a very low rate for 2.5 hours of penguin viewing).

You can combine this tour with an Albatross viewing tour or add on transportation (during certain times of the year).

I chose Royal Albatross mostly because of their location. They were the closest to the city I was planning to spend the weekend in. Their price was reasonable. And they kept telling me they were seeing penguins.

visiting the world's smallest penguins
A close up with a little blue penguin.


Over-preparing for New Zealand Weather

I arrived at the centre bundled in a thermal shirt, a tee, a sweater, my winter coat, gloves, ear muffs and a thick scarf. The website said dress warmly and I’d taken that to heart.

Our 2.5-hour tour would be spent on a dark viewing platform on the beach. I was in one of the southern-most cities in New Zealand in early winter. There was no sun. The wind was blowing ocean spray back onto us. I was expecting it to be cold.

But it wasn’t.

I didn’t need my ear muffs, scarf, sweater, tee or gloves. I had basically just needed my winter coat.

Others needed more layers than I did. I guess my Canadian was showing!

The “tour” didn’t really involve much talking. Our guide had warned us not to use flash (it hurts the penguins’ eyes) and to avoid making too much noise.

Then we were set free onto a wooden platform to wait for the penguins.


Seeing the World’s Smallest Penguins

It took half an hour of staring into  the inky waves before we spotted them.

Blue penguins go out to sea alone at dawn. But they return together. The birds gather in the water and form a raft. They pile close together, creating a dark shadow in the water. As they move closer to the beach, they start to porpoise – rising above the water like a dolphin getting air.

The raft moves with surprising speed. One moment you spot it, the next there’s a flurry of splashes from the porpoising penguins and then they’re waddling up the beach.

They stumble out of the water leaning forward like they’re using the weight of their head to pull them out of the water. They keep their little wings raised by their sides to keep their balance as they race towards home.

Home, in this case, was up a rather large sand dune.

The penguins, still clustered together, raced in a flurry of sleek silver-blue up the uneven ground. A few hopped over pebbles while others used pure momentum to get up the ridge.

Then the noise started.

For such little birds my god can they scream. Mates called their partners home. Others seemed to join in the cacophony for the pure thrill of it. Or maybe it was all a ploy to burst the eardrums of the large figures with a dozen cameras poised.

Either way, it was almost enough to make me fall out of love with little blue penguins.

The sounds is a sort of warble – like when the seagull in The Little Mermaid tries to sing. If I didn’t know it was the penguins, I would have been seriously concerned for the frog croaking like it’s gravely ill.


And There’s More!

After the excitement of the first raft died down, we went back to waiting. A dozen shadowed figures stood beside me, scanning the ocean for any sign of more tiny birds.

It took longer this time before someone spotted a small raft.

There were less birds, but the thrill was just as intense. Now we knew their path. Cameras turned before the birds did. I didn’t even look at my screen to make sure it was facing the right direction. It was all about the penguins.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the little blue marvels.

Seriously, how have they survived so long? Flightless, fearless, tiny birds shouldn’t still exist. But I’m so glad they do. I would have paid thousands to get to see them.


The Finale

We were treated to a third, medium-sized raft of penguins right before we left.

I’d been so focused on one bird, standing stock still right next to the platform, that I missed the initial sighting. I clambered across the deck, willing my shoes not to thud against the wood as I raced to see them.

One penguin had been pacing the shore for nearly 20 minutes all alone. We were worried he was lost. It turned out he had just been waiting for his pals to show up.

The raft burst forth from the ocean, sweeping him up in their haste to get home. He didn’t seem fazed by it, easily sinking into the blur of penguins.

This raft went up a dune further away. They were gone much faster than the first two. But I savoured every second of it.

I had to. How long will it be before I see another wild penguin?


The Final Count

All told, we saw about 55 penguins that night. The first raft was extremely large with over 20 little blue penguins bursting from the water together.

I had been trying to lower my expectations the entire week before my trip, convincing myself that it’d be ok if I didn’t see any at all. Seeing even 2 would have been amazing. But 55? Never ever did I consider that there would be so many.

New Zealand, you’re always surprising me.


New Zealand’s Animal Magic

My animal adventures in New Zealand have been the highlights. From swimming with wild dolphins in Kaikoura to laughing as a cheeky Kea bird try to steel a bus’s wipers to seeing baby kiwibirds at a rescue centre to watching little blue penguins come in from the ocean – it’s all been incredible.

Those are the kinds of once-in-a-lifetime experiences you have in New Zealand.

I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to see all of the beauty this country has to offer. There’s something so magical about it – and I’m not just talking about the hobbits.

When you come to New Zealand, make sure to soak up these chances to experience nature in such a unique way. Go see the wild blue penguins waddle up the beach to join their family for the night.

If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.




What animal do you find magical?




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