We were initially unsure if we wanted to write a post about the Otago peninsula- were our pictures good enough?! However we were pretty blown away by this unassuming little corner of New Zealand’s South Island and so we wanted to highlight its amazing wildlife and beautiful landscapes.
The Otago penninsula is just on the outskirts of Dunedin. In fact where Dunedin’s harbour ends is pretty much the start of the peninsula but it couldn’t be more different from one of the South Island’s biggest city’s, with it’s sparsely populated open fields it is more akin to the Scottish highlands than the outskirt’s of an industrious city, theres even a castle! The lack of human activity and landscape have allowed this place to remain a popular location for seabirds and marine wildlife as we found out.
The night before we arrived we stayed in Dunedin and made time to pop into the local I-Site to ask about the best places to see wildlife on the peninsula , the woman was very helpful and helped us plan our next day to make the most of our time. So the next day we headed straight to Victory Beach, the prime location to look for New Zealand Sea Lions.
To get to the beach there is a bit of a walk from the small car park along a straight path towards “The Pyramids” large volcanic basalt deposits shaped like pyramids, pretty random. When we reached the beach at the end of the path we couldn’t see much, in fact it just looked pretty vast and empty.
Not one’s to give up easily we started the long walk down the beach hoping to find some sea lions but after ten minutes with no sea lion in sight we thought it best to walk back. As we reached the path again we looked back for a last glance to make sure we hadn’t missed anything and we thought we could make out a dot coming out of the water. After another ten minutes deliberating (Kirsten is indecisive) we decided to walk back down the beach. As we got closer what was a dot became sea lion shaped!
The shape disappeared up the bank into the undergrowth but with our hopes high we carried on along the beach. While walking we were so focused on the shapes further down the beach we nearly walked on this lump.
We tip toed past this guy at the necessary distance and just as we passed him we saw another sea lion coming out of the waves.
She waddled right past unfazed to another sleeping animal who didn’t stir.
Before attempting to dry herself off and get comfy on the sand
As she was settling down a smaller sea lion who had been fast asleep before began to stir
After a couple of yawns he waddled as fast as he could over to the female who had just settled down, who we believe was his mum and managed to waken the sleeping sea lion in the process.
We watched on as they continued to squabble for a while longer before they all settled down to go back to sleep which was good timing as we had to check in to our AirBnB.
After dumping our stuff we decided to drive to Sandfly Bay in the hope of seeing another of the famous residents of the Otago peninsula; Penguins!
The Otago peninsula is home to both Little Blue penguins and Yellow- Eyed penguins, as we were planning to see the Little Blues at Phillip Island in Australia we thought we’d try and see some of the Yellow- Eyed..
Yellow- Eyed penguins are thought to be particularly ancient in terms of penguin evolution and are the least social of all penguins, preferring to nest out of sight of neighbours. These penguins are unique to New Zealand residing around the South Island and offshore islands and became extremely vulnerable to extinction in the 1980’s. Today this species is one of the rarest penguin species although populations are showing some recovery.
There is a popular tourist attraction on the Otago peninsula called Penguin Place which runs tours and is a conservation reserve for the Yellow-eyed penguins. The lady we had spoken to at the Dunedin I-Site had recommended if we wanted to see the birds on our own we could visit Sandfly Bay where there was a hide to view the wildlife. To reach the hide you must walk the length of the bay so we aimed to get there as early as possible so we didn’t disturb any penguins or other wildlife trying to land on the beach!
As we walked along we nearly walked right past this sleeping beauty covered in sand.
At the end of the bay the hide was actually closed due to undermining of the sand dune where it sat, so we found ourselves a good vantage point to look out. In front of our spot there were a small group of New Zealand Fur Seals hauling out on the rocks and playing around. One or two were also fast asleep.
We sat and watched for a long while, at one point as I looked down the beach a small shape was half way up the tideline and headed for the dunes. We craned forward to take photographs and look through our binoculars. We were too far off get any good shots but could tell we were looking at the tiny figure of a penguin. Before long the little shape had disappeared into the thick gorse hopefully making its way back to its nest safely. We stayed in our spot for a further while still but decided we should leave before we got cut off by the tide at the wrong end of the bay.
Walking back along the beach we saw these little footprints in the sand. And then looking up towards the path we would take back to the car we saw this!
The flash of yellow around the eyes is really clear and we pretty astounded to be watching a wild penguin. This poor little penguin really had chosen a hard road for itself and we watched it stop and take a lot of breathers on its way up.
It was brilliant to just stand at a distance and watch the penguins feat of endurance.
While we were distracted watching the little penguin struggle up a hill a female sea lion sneaked up right behind us. She wasn’t scared of us and in fact looked like she wanted a helping hand getting to the water. We maintained a safe distance and took turns watching her and following the progress of the penguin.
Although she did manage to find the energy to chase the little wading birds that were annoying her.
Just before she reached the waves she stopped and posed in front of the beautiful wave carved limestone structures of Sandfly bay.
Before swimming out to fish for the night.
New Zealand Sea Lions are currently in decline and are listed as Nationally Critical (the highest threat level in NZ) the reasons for this seem to be quite complex.
For me seeing a wild penguin was amazing and a bit unbelievable- theres a link to the ongoing conservation work to protect the Yellow- Eyed penguin here.
Full of energy and excitement after seeing so much we decided to head on to Taiaroa head in hope of seeing some Albatrosses even though it was getting late.
As we were driving along a flat stretch of road that ran parallel to the shore not far from the head we noticed something in the water and stopped to have a look. Elliot ended up making a new friend.
By the time we reached Taiaroa Head it was really quite dark and the lights were on around the bay where you can pay to watch the Little Blue penguins come in from the sea. The Otago peninsula is home to the only mainland breeding colony of Royal Albatross in the world at the furthest tip of the peninsula. You could only just make out the albatross flying overhead and after so much excitement we were knackered and headed home to make some tea and sleep.
The next morning we decided to drive straight up to Taiaroa Head in the hope of watching some more Albatross. After a quick stop at the Albatross Centre we headed across to the lookout walkway and watched the huge soaring shape of the Royal Albatross whip round the point on the strong winds.
Albatross are the largest seabirds in the world, Royal Albatross can reach up to 3.3m in wingspan. Albatross spend 85% of their lives at sea and mostly breed on very remote islands. The Royal Albatross arrive at Taiaroa Head in November and the chicks fledge in September the following year.
Unfortunately we did have to leave that afternoon to travel up to Christchurch but would more than recommend a visit especially for wildlife lovers! We really enjoyed our time at the Otago peninsula and we’d love to go back and spend more time there. In fact on our flight out of Christchurch to Melbourne we made a list of all the places we would visit when we next visit New Zealand including The Catlins and Mt Cook.
Our tips for a visit to the Otago;
1.) If you go to Otago give yourself a bit more time than we did, two nights or more would be preferable as there are so many things to do! We would maybe stay for 3 or 4 nights so we could do lots of walks and visit Penguin Place and do a tour of the Royal Albatross centre next time around.
2.) Take warm clothes, the beaches are open to the winds from the South Pacific Ocean which can make it very cold especially when standing watchin penguins or sea lions. We visited in early New Zealand autumn but the weather is pretty changeable.
3.) Be careful when driving along the roads parallel to the water especially at dusk and dawn as penguins come ashore and go back to the water at these times, crossing the road to do so! There are lots of penguin crossing signs but please take it easy.
We hope you enjoyed reading another post on New Zealand (even if was rather long)! We enjoyed reminiscing.
Kirsten & Elliot.