The word ‘maybe‘ is out. We might see some, but there is no guarantee. Do we still want to go? We do. We came to this spot on New Zealand South Island to see the yellow-eyed penguin, the rarest and most endangered of all penguins. Besides, more of them live in this warmer climate than in ice-covered Antarctica.

Our guide points out that the cruise shore excursions don’t always coincide with the penguins’ daily activities. But “one” might oblige us with a swim. One? She then goes on, both the drive and the short walk a bit of a challenge.

After this introduction, what’s left of our group ponders both the opportunity of a sighting and our amphibious vehicle, an 8-wheel-drive Argo, a cross between a tank and a boat

Cruising Down-Under

We are on a Sapphire Princess cruise from Auckland, New Zealand, to Sydney, Australia plus a stop in Hobart, Tasmania. Among other animals, we’ll see kangaroos, Tasmanian devils, and birds, all endemic to the down under territories. But here at the Otago Peninsula in New Zealand, deemed by the British botanist David Bellamy the finest eco-tourism destination in the world, it’s all about seeing, or not seeing, the “hoiho,” the Maori name of the yellow-eyed penguin as a noisemaker because of its shrill call.

We get to Taiaroa Head, the tip of the Otago Peninsula, by minibus. There, we check-in at Natures Wonders for our eco-tour of the pristine headlands and Penguin Beach. The Reid Family owns the facility and entirely funds its own conservation project on its sheep farm.

Looking for Hoiho

Our vehicle slides on a plateau of lush meadows lofted on hills above the Pacific Ocean. Nonchalant woolly sheep watch us pass by as a boring intrusion.

First, the Argo begins to wiggle its way down a muddy path, and it’s quickly evident that we chose the worst seats on the vehicle. Mud squirts from the back wheels and spatters our waterproof jackets although not our rubber boots. Never mind, I hang on to my seat at the sight of the fast-approaching edge of the cliff. Then we abruptly tilt toward the incline, the driver sitting at a steep angle below us. Although I don’t feel safely contained from our perch on this sideless vehicle, everything seems under control. 

When the Argo reaches sea level, I look back and dismiss the thought of having to retrace our ride on the return. By now, I’d be content to see only one yellow-eyed penguin.

Around us on the beach, gooey green masses look like giant spinach fettuccini. Our guide says they are seaweeds stuck in mini lagoons created by the low tide. Fur seals sunbathe on the nearby rocks, enjoying the cool splashes of the waves. No penguin is in sight yet, not even one of the expected little blue penguins.

It’s time to follow our guide on a path up to a wooden observatory along the cliffside. Then we begin to spy on penguins. I doubt that we’ll be able to notice their typical yellow iris and headband from this distance.

“There!” someone says. I grab one of the pairs of binoculars at the disposal of visitors and stare intently at a lens-zoomed hoiho. The bird barely stands outside a rocky cave, having selected a site protected from the sun. It could retreat at any moment, and this could be my only chance to see it. I frantically get hold of my camera and snap: I got it!

This rarest of all penguins is chubby and, reportedly, colorful. Other than its yellow eyes, its bill is of a creamy brown, its body mostly white, its chin and cheeks are black flecked with yellow, its back and tail blue, and its feet pink and black. And it’s indeed the only penguin we see during our short visit. “The best viewing is from November to February,” our guide says. It’s the end of February, molting time, and when they are the least active.

Protecting the Yellow-Eyed Penguin

Sadly, the bird population has declined by more than 50 percent since the mid-1990s. In 2004, on the Otago Peninsula, sixty percent of the chicks died from unknown causes. Then, in February 2013, fifty-six adults were found dead on the beaches and in breeding areas, perhaps from marine bio-toxins. The estimated 500 breeding pairs in 1981 have declined to 200 in 2018.

The penguins’ habitat is on land and at sea. They can loaf some 20 kilometers from their nesting areas, yet they need the marine environment for food and to reach neighboring colonies. For this reason, the Department of Conservation and the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust work at rehabilitating the forests and shrubland degraded by human activities. 

Hoiho needs all the help it can get. Natural predators, man-made obstacles, and diseases are not the only culprits looming over the yellow-eyed penguin’s survival. It’s the only species of penguins that won’t be tamed, and what’s more, it’s also the least social. Hoiho is a solitary breeder.

One can’t blame a bird that may be the most ancient of all living penguins and the only species left in its genus.

A demure sheep at Natures Wonder in Dunedin, New Zealand (MCArnott)
Down the path before the tilt down the cliff (MCArnott)
The observatory on the cliffside at Taioroa Head (MCArnott)
Photo Courtesy: The Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust
Our Argo transportation (DVWard)

Original article Buckettripper 2013 – Revised 2022