As you know, we are low-rent travelers. We eat cheap, sleep cheap and eschew expensive tours and concessions that don’t fit into our meager budget. Even in the Galapagos, despite complaints we’d heard that you can’t see anything without paying for tours, we managed to thoroughly enjoy three distinctly different islands largely on our own and only shelled out for a couple of inexpensive “taxi tours” and one long guided volcano hike in Isabella. We are living proof that you can see the world without breaking the bank.
That said, we knew when we came to the South Island we’d at least have to spring for a Milford Sound cruise, the only way to appreciate the world-famous fjord, and on the advice of friends on Full Circle we also wrung out of our pocketbook a guided wildlife tour to the Otago peninsula, home to royal albatross and small colonies of other rare and endangered wildlife. That was our planned activity for the day in Dunedin, a charming Scottish flavored city that deserves much more time than we were able to give it.
We spent time in the morning at a budget department store where I bought inexpensive wellies, an umbrella and disposable rain ponchos, and we augmented our road trip in-room meal kit of sporks and Aeropress coffeemaker by buying plastic cereal bowls and paper towels.
Our tour group included a quiet German couple, a young French family of four and an Englishman, and our guide was Dutch. We are so accustomed now to being the minority Americans that we almost feel exotic.
Our tour started with a quick drive by of Lanarch castle to pick up the French family, then a wet slog to the end of the Otago peninsula and the Royal Albatross Center where the rain stopped long enough for us to observe royal albatross in flight. They are magnificent, one of the two largest albatross species, with wingspans of three meters. As we watched two birds swoop and glide overhead, our guide Roel described their lifecycle, migration route and behavior. We could have watched for hours but we had more to see before dark.
The rain held off as we entered a private reserve and hiked down to the rocky beach where we could watch New Zealand fur seal mothers and pups from a small platform. We’d been up close and personal with sea lions in the Galapagos, as in they were on our boat, so this wasn’t the once-in-a-lifetime thrill for us that it was perhaps for the others, but Roel told us how these fur seals had been hunted to extinction from the mainland in the last century and are now making a comeback.
Again, we could have watched the young pups tussle and practice swimming for much longer but Roel wrangled us back up the cliff, across a soggy meadow and down a steep slope to a sand beach where we found ourselves at high tide.
That meant it wasn’t safe to walk along the beach because we’d be too close to the Hooker sea lions we came to see, so we followed Roel and picked our way through the moguls of grass-covered dunes. Hookers are the rarest of the five species of sea lions and native to New Zealand. They were hunted to extinction on the mainland hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans but like the fur seals they’re re-establishing small colonies on this coast, migrating from the subarctic islands. They are huge. Males can grow to nearly ten feet long and weigh almost half a ton. We saw mostly males and only one female. Roel said it was unusual to see a female; they usually stay with their pups. (Note that Roel, the New Zealander, is in shirt sleeves while the rest of us are in full cold-and-wet-weather kit.)
We continued picking our way through the dunes until we reached a small blind at the bottom of a steep slope where a few sheep grazed. Roel, with his practiced eye, pointed out two yellow-eyed penguins almost immediately, then three more on a farther slope. These are the rarest of all penguins and the largest living in temperate regions, nearly 2 feet tall. They are found only here in New Zealand, and they do not migrate, but rather go to sea every day to feed and return to roost in the bush in the late afternoon.
This highly protected colony consists of about 60 birds and we saw six. The last one swam in while we watched, and he struggled to clear the rocky ledge at the shoreline, which Roel said had shifted in the storms over the past week. Our camera is not up to this kind of photography but we were thrilled to see them, even as the rain started again in earnest.
Roel finally dragged us away, back across the dunes, up the slopes and across the meadow to the van.
It was a quiet ride back along the peninsula to town as we were all lost in our own thoughts. Jack and I urged our weary bones toward our hotel until the smell of a real wood fire lured us into a cozy pub where we shed our soggy outerwear and warmed up by the hearth with pizza and beer. Was the tour worth the hit to our bank account? Absolutely. As too many species struggle to survive, we feel privileged to have seen these rare creatures in their natural habitats.