I put a protective hand over my camera and grimaced as the wind whipped up the sand again, flinging it once more against my bare feet, my face, and in fact all my exposed skin with the agony of a million tiny pinpricks. Too late I ducked behind a rock and as the wind died down again I realized how ridiculous this was, that there must be a better way of seeing yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho).
And there is, but you have to pay.
Penguin Place is near the very end of the Otago Peninsula, outside of Dunedin. It’s a working sheep farm where the owner noticed the struggling hoiho colony on the beach and decided he wanted to help. Twenty years later it’s still a sheep farm, but with a large coastal area devoted to the protection and recovery of the local yellow-eyed penguin population.
Tours of Penguin Place are run throughout the year, and cost just $52. Just $52, you’re saying? Could it possibly be worth it?
I admit it, I had my doubts. But it’s no secret here that I love penguins, so I went. And yes, it was worth it.
Here are seven reasons why you need to visit Penguin Place.
1. Yellow-eyed penguins are difficult to see anywhere else.
Hoiho only live in New Zealand, so you need to see them while you’re here! They’re endangered, and there are only an estimated 630 breeding pairs left on the Southeast coast. But even on the beaches where they nest they’re not easy to find. They’re very shy and quite anti-social, so if they see people or any other threats they won’t come ashore, sometimes even abandoning their chicks.
And let’s be honest: people are stupid. Several times I’ve gone looking for yellow-eyed penguins, positioning myself carefully and quietly in the hide on a nesting beach, only to have ignorant or selfish tourists ignore all the signs and go wandering on the beach in the late afternoon. They think it’ll get them closer to the penguins, but in reality all it does is scare them away and ruin it for everyone else.
So unless you’re very, very patient and quite lucky, you aren’t too likely to see one.
And when they do come ashore they move fast. It’s the quickest little waddle you’ve ever seen! They’re extra vulnerable on the exposed beach so it’s maximum about two minutes from exiting the water to disappearing into the bush. You’ve got to be vigilant. Even just a quick check of Facebook on your phone might mean you miss seeing that little tuxedo-clad dude make his way home.
At Penguin Place you’re guaranteed to see at least one hoiho, either on the beach or actually in its nest.
2. It’s an opportunity to see hoiho up close.
If you do see a yellow-eyed penguin on a beach somewhere, it likely will be very far away. Because they are so shy, they’ll only come ashore if you’re nowhere near them, so unless you’ve got a really great pair of binoculars or a huge zoom lens, you won’t get much of a look. And you certainly won’t get to see them in their nests.
At Penguin Place there’s a system of viewing hides connected by trenches, so you can see the hoiho not only on the beach but also in their actual nests, and at very close range. You get to have a good, long, close look at them and watch them doing their penguiny things.
3. They’re fun to watch!
Instead of just watching them walk up the beach, here you get to see them in their homes. They interact with their partners, share food, and preen themselves endlessly, distributing oil from a gland on their tails over their feathers to keep them waterproof. And if you’re here in the right season, you might get to see some adorable fluffy grey chicks! I could watch them forever.
4. Your entrance fee funds hoiho conservation.
Penguin Place is actually a conservation reserve. It is not a zoo. The main purpose of this place is not, in fact, to show you penguins, but to aid in saving these creatures. The guided tours are simply a way of funding the habitat restoration, predator control, and research that is required to preserve this endangered species.
Native trees are planted and nesting boxes are provided for the penguins to have optimal breeding conditions. Traps are set for rats, stoats, and possums, and are checked regularly. No dogs are allowed on the site. All the yellow-eyed penguins that have bred, hatched or been rehabilitated here are monitored for the ongoing research that is carried out. This all costs money, and by visiting you are helping fund this important project.
5. There’s a Penguin Hospital
Not only do they run the conservation reserve, but Penguin Place also has a penguin hospital. Sick, starving, and injured penguins are brought here from all over the South of New Zealand for care and rehabilitation. So the money you pay for your tour means that the penguins in the hospital here can receive medication and nutritious food that they need to recover and be released back into the wild.
You get shown around by an expert, a guide who knows everything there is to know about the hoiho. Seriously, ask them anything! And not only that, but because each penguin that nests here has a name, a distinct personality, and a recorded history, they can tell you stories about the characters you see!
7. It’s not just penguins; there’s stunning coastal scenery and other wildlife.
Ok, so you can see these things on other parts of the Otago peninsula, but it is still very, very pretty here. And if you want, there’s a lodge on the property that you can stay in!
So there you have it: seven reasons you should definitely visit Penguin Place. If you want more information about the hoiho and Penguin Place, try these links.