When John and I went to the southern tip of New Zealand hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare, endangered yellow-eyed penguin (the Maori name is hoiho), we would’ve been happy for even a brief glimpse. These penguins are not only among the rarest on earth — there are only an estimated 4,000 left in the world — they are also very shy.
Yet our willingness to sit quietly for hours in the cold — and, often, rain — paid off when we were able to witness these gorgeous birds coming ashore to feed their chicks.
Very unfortunately, the penguins are endangered in part because humans ignore the signs around their nesting sites and walk across the paths that the penguins take to reach their nests. If a penguin comes ashore and finds humans in its way, it will return to sea, leaving its chicks hungry.
We spoke at length to a wonderful naturalist who was there on behalf of the Department of Conservation, volunteering his time for hours every night to help ensure the penguins have a safe path to get to their chicks. Nevertheless, we witnessed several occasions on which he asked visitors not to cross the paths, explaining that to do so would endanger the lives of these very rare birds … and then watched as these people went right ahead anyway, disregarding the naturalist’s pleas to help protect the birds. It was astonishing, and more than a little depressing; it would take so little so help save these birds, but many of the tourists couldn’t be bothered.
Upon returning home, we got in touch with the Southland District Council and the South Catlins Charitable Trust to voice our concerns, and we received a warm response back, both sharing our concerns and outlining new initiatives that are being planned to help protect these penguins. Of course, the birds have other threats — among them, fishing, climate change, and ocean pollution — but the good news is that these are things we can all do something about, wherever we may live.
As you can see from these photos, all taken by John, the yellow-eyed penguins are uniquely beautiful, with their yellow eyes and the glowing yellow feathers around them, and they make their homes in the rainforesty scrubs and grasses off the shore, usually walking across tide pools and up steep rock embankments to get to their nests. We do hope to return to this area one day, and we hope to find many more yellow-eyed penguins, instead of fewer.
January 20 is Penguin Awareness Day, and it’s more important than ever that we celebrate (and work to protect) these amazing animals.
If you’ve read My Last Continent, you’ve met the Adélie, gentoo, chinstrap, emperor, and Magellanic penguins. Last November, I was delighted to meet a new species: the Tawaki, or Fiordland-crested penguin. (Tawaki is the Māori name, meaning crested; these birds are found only on the South Island of New Zealand.)
The amazing Tawaki live in the rainforest, nesting under tree roots and bushes. They hike from the ocean across sandy beaches, over sharp rocks, and up steep banks to get to their nests. Sadly, there are only about 3,000 of these incredible penguins left on earth.
The Tawaki are endangered due to several factors, including predators on the island (non-native species such as stoats, possums, rats, and feral cats), climate change, and human disturbance (from tourists to the fishing industry). Tawaki are very shy, and it’s rare to see them — and when you do, you have to be very careful to keep your distance; if they come back to shore to feed their chicks and a human is near their path to the nest, they will get frightened and return to the ocean, leaving their chick to go hungry.
How can you help penguins like the Tawaki stay with us forever?
- Consider giving up seafood, or even cutting back. You’ll save more fish for the birds, and you’ll help ensure that penguins and other creatures don’t get killed by fishing nets and longlines.
- Be a respectful birdwatcher. Visit penguins with guides who know how to keep a safe distance, or learn about their habitat so that you can be sure to stay out of harm’s way.
- Do all that you can to combat climate change (see the Climate Reality Project and Cowspiracy for some good tips).
- Support conservation efforts like the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, which monitors penguins and works on the ground to ensure protections for them.
And keep learning! The more you know of these majestic creatures, the more inspired you’ll be to help save them. Join me in Patagonia in October to meet Magellanic penguins up close and personal at the largest colony in the world. This journey will be a small group of travelers who will meet with local researchers to learn more about their work with this colony, and with any luck, we’ll get to meet Turbo the Penguin as well (the inspiration for the Admiral Byrd character in My Last Continent). Learn more here.
Happy Penguin Awareness Day! (And thanks to John Yunker for these wonderful photographs.)