“Do the penguins know we’re here?” asks the little girl.
“Yes, they do,” replies Dan, our tour guide and penguin expert. “But because we’re looking at them through such a small hole in the wall, the penguins can only see a little of us, so they think we’re smaller than them and not a threat.”
Our group starts to laugh at this piece of penguin logic before remembering we should keep quiet so as not to scare the incredibly shy bird that has waddled up the beach and is now preening only a couple meters away.
I’m sitting in a camouflaged wooden hutch on a private beach on New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula. The temperature is dropping fast as dusk creeps in, but no one seems to mind. We’re here to see the Yellow-eyed penguin, the rarest and most elusive of the species, and the first has just waddled up from the ocean and begun to climb the slope and head inland to home. These penguins nest on land and spend their nights inland before heading back out into the ocean at dawn to fish and eat.
It’s April, and Dan explained earlier that this is their fledgling period, when last season’s chicks venture out to sea for the first time and adult penguins regain weight before being confined to land again during their moulting season.
They have only a few weeks to do this, and it’s a dangerous time. It’s the season when their energy levels are low and they are vulnerable to starvation and attacks by predators, both on land and in water. It seems as though everyone is out to get them and, indeed, only 20 percent make it to adulthood.
There are approximately 3,000 Yellow-eyed penguins left, so the Penguin Place offers a sanctuary for these rare and elusive animals who, otherwise, may be too afraid to venture back on land for fear of what might be waiting for them. Since this haven was founded, their numbers have gradually increased — there were only about 300 estimated in the wild in 1990, but this has now grown to approximately 3,400 . This is due to a small, dedicated team who fund their conservation work entirely from the informative and entertaining tours that have been given daily since 1985, when Howard McGrouther donated his own farmland to care for the penguins and provide a safe place for them to raise their young.
The penguin outside our hutch cranes his neck, stretches his wings and, with a wiggle that starts at his neck, gathers momentum as it travels down his back and explodes in a shake of his tail, lets out the kind of squawk that could be expected from some giant, prehistoric ancestor. Then, as if he just realized he’s forgotten his house keys, he turns around and waddles quickly back down the slope from where he came. His little head dips below the horizon, and we can no longer see him but we can hear his squawks echo in the distance.
Everyone looks around at each other, confused, wondering if we’ve scared him away. Then, we hear the same kind of squawk from another voice and the response from our penguin. A moment later, two little penguin heads bob above the horizon and our friend returns with, what Dan explains, is his penguin girlfriend. Still squawking at each other, they sound like a bickering married couple — which, I suppose, may not be far from the truth.
Despite the apparent argument, the two penguins seem happy to be in each other’s company. They spend a few moments circling one another with chests puffed and wings flapping before continuing their commute along the small hilltop and into the brush to find their nest.
No one speaks for a moment. Words are replaced with silent grins at the rare sight and the similarities to humans in the way these little birds interact and communicate with one another. Then, a moment later, there’s a whisper: “Look, there’s some more!” and we all turn to observe the beach once again, as more Yellow-eyed penguins — a whole extended family this time — hurl themselves out of the water. With bellies full of fish, the new arrivals slide onto the sand and begin their long journey back to the safety of home for the night.