Posted on Friday, 28 March 2014
After an amazing ten days with the Great White sharks at Stewart Island Chris & I decided to stay on for another seven days in New Zealand and explore South Island and the many nature highlights and experiences it has to offer.
Our first stop was The Caitlin Coast where we were hoping to see two species of penguins; the Blue penguin and the Yellow-Eyed penguin. We already had very good views of Blue penguin while at Steward Island. They are the smallest penguin in the world and look very duck like when they bob around on the surface. They are pretty shy though and it was difficult to get images of them. We were also lucky enough to have one sighting of a yellow eyed penguin. It is extremely beautiful with a bold yellow strip across its eye. It is also the rarest penguin in the world with its population estimated at 4000.
We stayed in an extremely picturesque bay called Curio Bay and even though we arrived just after sunset we got a life highlight on our first penguin hunt. Hauled out on the rocks was a Fjordland Crested penguin. I think you have to know penguins to appreciate this sighting but Chris & I were over the moon. It is rare to see this species in this area and we certainly were not expecting to see it on this trip at all.
We got more great views of him the following morning at dawn and also managed to find another two pairs of yellow eyed penguins which we were thrilled about.
Our next stop took us on a 4 hour drive to Te Anau in Fjordland, or better known to some as the filming location for many Lord of The Rings scenes! Wherever possible Chris & I try to experience things in ways that are different to the norm. It is possible to get on large boats and visit areas like Milford and Doubtful Sound but we had the great fortune of a friend who flies a helicopter in this area. We had one day to do it and luck was on our side. We woke up to blue clear skies and no wind. The plan was to drive up to Milford Sound (the drive itself is incredibly spectacular) and then we would fly around and through the many fjords and sounds in the Southern Alps mountain range before ending back in Te Anau.
I was expecting it to be an amazing flight but I truly was not prepared for the absolutely mind blowing sights that we would see. As we took off we flew right up into what I can only describe as a glacial cauldron. The mountain rim was ringed with hanging glaciers and icy pools of water below it. The Southern Alp Mountains are very jagged and points rise up in sharp peaks, which made my stomach drop every time we flew over the peak of one point and dropped over the edge onto the other side.
We got amazing views of the dramatic Milford Track, complete with hikers as they descended the path down into Milford Sound itself. Seeing that view definitely puts that trek on my bucket list! The forest is incredibly beautiful and every mountainside is made up of very dense thick Beech forest. This area receives up to 8 meters of rain per year and the result is an exuberantly thick and seemingly impenetrable forest.
The mountain sides are also home to many spectacular waterfalls, some as high as 1km! One of the highlights of the flight was an awesome piece of flying whereby our pilot hovered around a waterfall, just meters away from the cliff face and then we plummeted downwards to race through a gorge before emerging into one of the many Sounds that nestle in the mountain range.
Honestly this is one of the most exciting and breathtakingly amazing things I have ever done. I was thinking this to myself before our pilot went and landed the helicopter on top of a tiny precipice of mountain… I didn’t even think that was possible! Below us stood the glorious views of Milford Sound… Chris and I were on such a high after that experience that not even a very large speeding fine could dampen (we unfortunately learnt the hard way that the speed limit in New Zealand is not actually 120km per hour!).
The next species we were hoping to see was the world’s smallest and rarest marine dolphin, the Hectors Dolphin which took us to Akaroa. We only had one morning to do this and we were successful, seeing 2 small pods of them. The sightings were very quick as the dolphins approached the boat and then almost immediately dived on both our sightings. But, we were still happy as we got good clear looks of them.
The last adventure we had planned took us to Kaikoura. What a beautiful place where the Mountains meet the Ocean and the ocean is alive with a huge variety of marine wildlife! It is possible to see many whale species here such as Sperm whales, Humpbacks and Southern Rights. There are also resident pods of Dusky dolphins which one can swim with and if you are lucky a Hectors Dolphin may also be seen. New Zealand fur seals dot the coast line in their spread out seal colonies amongst the rocky coastline. If you are especially lucky you may even see an orca or two…
But, our reason for coming here was actually to go on a number of sea bird watching trips. What makes Kaikoura so special, and gives the opportunity of seeing such a huge variety of marine life is that the continental shelf is a mere 1 to 2 miles offshore. This also means that it is by far the best spot in the world to see Wandering and Northern and Southern Royal Albatross.
For those of you that do not know too much about birds, you need to understand that these albatross are among The Great Animals on our Planet today.
How so, you might ask. Well these birds can live up to 60 years, circumnavigate the globe in under a month, spent upwards of 5 years at sea without ever touching land, in the world's most tempestuous oceans, and have the largest wingspan of any creature alive. Sadly though almost all of the 23 species of albatross are threatened with extinction and when you see these animals magnificence at an arms length you feel pretty lousy as a human that it is our kind that are wiping them out through greed and careless fishing practices such as longlining.
When we headed out on our first early morning trip we could not believe how easy it was to actually see these rare birds. Within moments of the bait going into the water a number of Wanderers came jetting in with flared wings and feet like landing gear on an aeroplane skidding on the surface. Competition around the food is fierce and on each trip there was one dominant bird for the morning.
The birds are actually really mean to each other and horrendous squawking sounds are emitted which you think are impossible to come from such a beautiful bird! New arrivals will constantly compete for the bait but the dominant bird will hold strong, rarely losing it over the 2 hour period. This does result in quite a bit of surface fighting with the losers hanging around on the outskirts.
The smaller birds seem to have better luck with the ever feisty Giant Petrels constantly sidling in for a few scraps and the Pintado Petrels also doing well on the smaller scraps.
At times we were surrounded with up 15 different Wanderers and Royals. These birds can weigh up to 14kgs and their wing spans reach 3.5 meters, so they are absolutely massive and a seriously overwhelming and impressive sight seeing them just a meter or so away from you.
In fact it was such an intense experience that both Chris & I agree that this is right up there with some of the best nature experiences we have ever had, and most definitely the best bird experience ever!
Throughout our week long adventure we had so much good luck with the weather and this definitely added to our success and enjoyment of each activity. I know that New Zealand can be hit with pretty miserable weather at times so I am so grateful to have seen all the amazing sights and wildlife in such good conditions.
New Zealand is a truly remarkably spectacular place on so many different levels and I know it is not going to be long before Chris & I return here.
We are in the process of putting together an Apex 2015 New Zealand Expedition that will take in the Great White sharks as well as the marine life in Kaikoura. If anyone is interested in this amazing trip please drop us a line and we will send all the info as soon as the trip is put together.