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New Zealand - of biologists, sea lions and penguins

So, we're finally here, our final destination of this trip, New Zealand. We arrived in Christchurch on the South Island about a week ago, and have been traveling (mostly) south on the east coast. The weather has been fabulous so far. Just yesterday, it's been rainy, but other than that, it's been great summer weather. We're currently in Dunedin and will head to to the southernmost point tomorrow.

Or maybe not - who cares? We're free again, with our own campervan and no fixed plans. Ah, life is good with so much freedom! Everybody keeps telling us it's the high season here, and that most places are quite booked, but to us, this country seems abandoned - where is everyone? (Could this be an India aftershock? Probably...)

After we picked up our campervan (similar to the one we had in Australia, but a bit more comfortable), we drove to Kaikoura and met Jukka and Curt, two biologists from our own field, and also Kirstin, Kirsten, Brit and Koella who are all here to collect snails in freshwater lakes as part of their research projects. We joined them for two days at Lake Alexandria, a beautiful lake in the middle of the south island. Diving for snails doesn't sound like rocket science at first sight, but actually, these snails are the most famous study system for testing the hypothesis that parasites are the reason for the maintenance of sexual reproduction. It was a lot of fun (especially the part where we could watch others work while we're on holidays ;)

After this short excursion to science, we headed to Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand, to do some hiking. A fantastic trip, and spectacular views - what a beautiful mountain. After the hike, we hit the road and less than two hours later, we were swimming in the ocean at a place called Oamaru; quite a change of scenery in such a short time.

We are now in Dunedin, a city they call the Edinburgh of New Zealand. What's most fascinating here is the Otago peninsula, sort of a finger of land stretching out from the city into the Pacific Ocean, and which runs parallel to the mainland for 30 km. It's a hotspot for wildlife, as some extremely rare species come only here to breed. It's a pretty rough landscape, with lots of steep cliffs, but there are some bays where the sea lions and the penguins come ashore in the evening. Most of these bays are not accessible to the public, except one of them, the Sandfly bay, and we decided to check it out.

After some hiking through some of New Zealand's tallest sand dunes, which rise for some 100 metres above the beach, we got down to the sandy beach (it was rainy and windy on that day). Penguins are very shy animals and will not come ashore if they see humans on the beach, so the conservation people set up a small hut at the far end of the beach as to spot penguins. The thing is, to get to that hut you have to cross the entire beach, but the beach is also home to dozens of sea lions who consider it their territory. So, we walked past a couple of sea lions, and they seemed pretty relaxed, even shy, and got back to the the water whenever we got too close to them. We then stayed in the hut a little while but couldn't see any penguins, which was pretty sad because the yellow eyed penguin who breeds on that beach is apparently the rarest penguin in the world, and we hadn't seen penguins in the wild at all before.

Slightly disappointed, we walked back along the beach, when we suddenly realized that a huge sea lion in the middle of the beach wouldn't move. Assuming that they were shy animals, we continued walking towards him (most certainly a male), when he suddenly started walking towards us (it's not exactly "walking", but you know what we mean). We stood there, a little dumbfounded, asking ourselves "did that big sea lion just walk towards us?" After some considerationwe decided to ignore him - there was no other option anyways: to the left was the open ocean, to the right were the grassy sand dunes, an ecologically sensitive area where one is not allowed to walk around. After we took a couple of steps, the sea lion realized we weren't really taking him serious enough, and he started roaring and running towards us. So that's why the old lady at the penguin observation hut said "have a safe trip back"! Well, we took our safety serious at this point and ran back into the dunes (when you are attacked by a sea lion, the fact that an area is "ecologically sensitive" suddenly becomes second priority). We walked for about a 100 meters among the dunes and decided to check out the beach a little bit further, and yep, it was safe again - the sea lion had moved on. At that very moment, a penguin walked past by us, trying to get himself into safety into the dunes. So, thanks to the sea lion, we had to walk behind the dunes for a while which was exactly when the penguin came ashore and decided it was safe because it couldn't see any humans. What a superbly cool animal, and how lucky of us to see the rarest penguin in the world so close.


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Comments (2)

Well done! We had a surprising encounter with a sealion as well. Did you now that they can grab a seal and shake it for so long until the fur has peeled off? You really were lucky! ;-)


Sealions, seaelephants, right whale mothers with their calves, magellanic penguins, orcas, commerson dolphins and an armadillo! All of them we've seen in only three days without beeing in any danger on the other end of the world in Argentina last November. Guess you guys have picked the rather uncomfortable end!

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 14, 2008 8:06 PM.

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