Today was all about seeing the local wildlife — this morning saw me taking a trip out into the harbour to swim with dolphins, and this afternoon saw me heading to Pohatu Marine Reserve in Flea Bay to see white-flippered little penguins. I was pretty excited about this, having only seen a few penguins in their natural habitat before.
The trip across to Flea Bay involved navigating a high pass on a gravel road. The views from the top across to both Flea Bay and Akaroa were stunning, as seems to be the norm for NZ! We didn’t have time on the way over to take photos, but on the way back I got to snap some beautiful shots looking down on Akaroa Harbour from above.
Once we arrived, I met the couple I would be kayaking with and my guide, Kevin. Because I was on my own, I would be in Kevin’s boat, which worked out well because I couldn’t use the left pedal in the kayak due to the position it put my knee in. Plus, he didn’t mind occasionally padding while I tried to snap a few photos!
Our trip started with paddling up the northern side of the bay, where the penguins make their home. The owners of the land here have put out plenty of artificial nests as part of a program to get the penguins breeding; apparently when they first put them out, they didn’t put enough and all the penguins started fighting over them! A very interesting thing about these nests is that they aren’t along the shoreline as you might expect; the penguins travel as far up as a copse of trees on top of a hill over 200m high, and they can travel as far as 700m inland as well.
Soon we were spotting more penguins than I ever thought I’d see. Hidden in amongst the rocks were quite a few groups of 2-4 penguins, peering out at us and wondering what to make of the giant yellow things outside their lairs. Occasionally one of the pied shags preening themselves on the rocks would stop, disdainfully look down at us, have a poo, and continue grooming.
Before we reached the end of the bay, we got to paddle a little way into a cave dug out of the soft volcanic rock by the relentless battering from the sea. I felt so small in comparison to what seemed like a giant cave. I couldn’t marvel for too long though because soon we were having to back out to make sure the swell didn’t push us too far into the cave.
Kevin thought it would be a good idea to say hi to the Pacific and I agreed, so we continued padding until we were well and truly in the waves of the ocean. For the second time today, I was treated to the view of the Banks Peninsula looking in. There were islands that had broken off the mainland and many larger caves than the one we had just been in.
The hardest work of the tour definitely came when we were paddling across the bay. Because Kevin wanted to make sure the other kayak didn’t get too far behind, he had tied a tow rope to it. I really noticed the weight when my out-of-shape arms were burning from pushing the paddle through the water! The crossing didn’t take all that long though and soon we were facing back into the bay and letting the waves carry us in.
There is a great divide between the animals in Flea Bay. As I said, the penguins live on the northern side — all but 70 of the 1063 mating pairs that lived there during the last census (as a side note, the census takes place every 4 years; the next one will be at the end of the year and they are looking for people to help count). The southern side is mostly inhabited by New Zealand fur seals. As we reached the area that Kevin said was the colony, we could only see one or two seals. I was thinking that it was a pretty small colony until we got around a rocky outcrop and could see them everywhere! Pups were splashing around in rock pools and adorably trying to scramble up rocks towards their mothers, while the adults lounged on the rocks looking as bored as possible.
Eventually Kevin pried us away from the seals by pointing out a line of white in the water. That line of white was not sea foam…it was a line of around 80 white flippered penguins, having what he described as their “happy hour.” In the late afternoon, they often gather on the water to socialise before night falls. I was amazed. I knew that they had said there were over 1000 mating pairs, but to see even 80 at one time was so cool. We made our way over to them, careful not to get too close or to make too much noise, and just watched as they floated this way and that, eventually dividing up into three distinct groups that floated off in different directions. What a way to end our trip!
Pohatu Adventures operates many tours around Flea Bay, including 1- and 2-day trips. Their kayaking tours run in the afternoon when weather permits and evening penguin tours are also available.