26 July 2014

Little Guys

On a cold, windy afternoon in the July winter of 2011, we sat on a rock on the southern tip of New Zealand's South Island and watched a Yellow Eyed Penguin emerge from the ocean.

The Yellow Eyed Penguin is one of the rarest penguins in the world, with fewer than two thousand breeding pairs left. The YEP makes its home along New Zealand's south and southeast coasts, where they build their nests in the forest, and then cross the beach to work a 9-5 shift in the ocean. They emerge from the water shortly before sunset, and return to their nests. If you're there when they arrive, they will not cross the beach. This is dangerous for them, and potentially devastating for their chicks. New Zealand makes every effort to protect its endangered species, so beaches where YEPs nest are physically off limits to humans.

Except for one.

The small YEP colony in Curio Bay doesn't mind human visitors. The seven-or-so mating pairs here bob through the surf, climb up on to the rocks, preen for a while, and then waddle across the beach to their nests. They don't approach people, but they don't go too far out of their way to avoid us either. 

The house rules are simple: 

- There should always be two meters between a human and a penguin. If the penguin gets closer, it's the human's responsibility to move out of the way. 
- Never get anywhere near the nests.

We knew that Daniel would be respectful of these expectations, but we talked with him about them anyway. He took the rules to heart. When a group of four beer-toting visitors marched past the beach and into the nests, Daniel kind of freaked out. We were silently indignant, unsure how to proceed. We're not the Penguin Police, are we? And what on Earth were they doing? Who drives a hundred miles from civilization to get a buzz and mess with an endangered species' reproductive cycle?

Moments later, a local man noticed what was going on, and slapped on his Penguin Police badge. We're not exactly sure what he said, but he said it well. The visitors took their beer elsewhere and missed the show.

And what a show it was. A single penguin appeared first, in almost the precise location where we first spotted one in 2011. Six more emerged from the ocean before we left. Daniel took hundreds of pictures of penguins. We took hundreds of pictures of Daniel. 

Despite the clear conditions and relatively warm air temperature, we entered our ninetieth minute on the beach without feeling in our fingers or toes. With the light fading anyway, we left the penguins behind and headed for the Niagara Falls Cafe, just as we did three years ago. And just like they did three years ago, the restaurant (which serves hundreds of visitors a day during the summer months) opened for dinner strictly for us. After a warm, comforting dinner like the one we'd enjoyed three years ago, we got in the car and took the same pitch-black country road back to the beach. As we rounded a curve, I remembered that three years ago, we nearly hit a lost sheep on that road. On this note, anyway, history did not repeat itself.

There was a Little Blue Penguin waiting in the headlights for us instead. We've waited three years to see one up close, so we're pretty thankful that we didn't kill him.

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