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ALL SENSES ENGAGED

Julie Haines experienced an assault on all the senses during an overland tour to see gannets.

The noise hit us first —a cacophony of sound as we arrived at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke's Bay.

Then came the smell of guano, overwhelming our noses. But nothing could beat the visual treat of watching one of the world's most remarkable birds go about their day-to-day business.

We were at the cape to see the world's largest accessible mainland colony of gannets. There are approximately 20,000 at Cape Kidnappers, living in four colonies, and our tour with Gannet Safaris stopped just a few steps from the immense Plateau Colony.

Stepping out of the bus we were enthralled by the sight before us. Gannets soared above, casting giant shadows from their 1.8-metre wing span, while on the ground adults preened fluffy white chicks, rubbed beaks and necks in graceful courtship dances, and screeched threateningly at each other in irritation if boundaries were overstepped.

To our delight the gannets were oblivious to our presence. Some sat right next to the barrier chain, close enough to touch (though they will attack if you try to pat them so it's not recommended).

We watched the males fly in with seaweed and present it to their partners as nesting material while undertaking the obligatory recognition ritual. Other parents fed their cuddly-looking chicks regurgitated fish.

As we were bombarded with noise, our guide Wayne Marven explained that the birds use voice recognition to know where to land. Extremely territorial, they will fight each other if they misjudge the landing spot. They also make bad neighbours — if a black-backed seagull decides to steal an egg while the parents are out fishing, the neighbouring gannets won't do a thing to stop it.

What makes these sea birds truly astonishing though is their capacity for flight. They will happily fly a couple of hundred kilometres a day looking for food, diving 8 to 10 metres into the ocean at 120kmh. When chicks are 16 weeks old, they embark on a massive week-long migration to Great Barrier Reef, flying continually, even in their sleep.

“All Kiwis have an OE. That's what theirs is,” joked Wayne.

Only 30 percent survive the journey, but they are stronger birds because of it, and the gannet population at Cape Kidnappers steadily increases by 3 percent each year. If the trip to Australia doesn't kill them, gannets usually live for 20 to 25 years.

Gannets are creatures of habit. They will generally have the same mate for life and return to the same nest site each year. They lay one egg and during the 40-to-43-day incubation period both parents take turns “standing” on the egg with their thermally controlled webbed feet. The chicks are born naked, but after 8 to 10 days grow fluffy white down, which becomes a grey speckled plumage by the time they are ready to fly to Australia.

Overland tours to the Cape Kidnappers colony operate from September 1 to April 30, as by May the majority of the gannets have migrated.

From the Plateau Colony 100m above the sea, we could see the other three colonies in the distance. The Saddle Colony sits picturesquely by the three pinnacles; this colony started in 1870 and was once the only mainland colony in the world. The Black Reef Colony is accessible via the beach from Clifton at low tide. The Whalebone Reef Colony is not accessible. As we started the drive back to Clifton, Wayne pointed out a small colony higher up the hills which is just beginning to form.

The journey with Gannet Safaris is itself an interesting experience. The 31km return trip passes through New Zealand's largest privately-owned wildlife sanctuary, covered in pinus radiata, native bush and pasture. We spotted wild goats tottering impossibly on a vertical hill, and a Pāteke brown teal duck floating on a stock dam. Then we passed through the 10.6km long predator fence, entering a pest free territory where kiwi and tuatara have been reintroduced, and other natives such as whitehead, takahē, tomtit, rifleman, morepork, tūīs and bellbirds thrive. “The dawn chorus now is really loud,” said Wayne.

We stopped on a clifftop with spectacular views towards Napier, Mahia Peninsula, the Kaweka and Ruahine ranges, and even Mt Ruapehu in the distance. The cliffs below us revealed fault lines and layers of volcanic ash.

In another dam swallows swooped around looking for dragonflies while the air filled with the sound of croaking frogs, like the volume on a television turned to its highest setting. I couldn't decide whether the frogs or the gannets were the loudest, but either way, on a Gannet Safaris tour the wildlife is certain to make itself heard.

For bookings visit www.gannetsafaris.co.nz

Copyright Julie Haines 2021

UP CLOSE: The Gannet Safaris bus parks right next to the Plateau Colony, allowing people of all ages and fitness levels to get close to the gannets.
THREE POINTS: The Saddle Colony at Cape Kidnappers is no longer accessible to the public but can be seen from a distance perched on a steep hillside by the pinnacles.
INTO THE DISTANCE: The Gannet Safaris overland tour offers dramatic coastal and rural scenery from private land.
GOOD HABITS: A gannet greets his partner with a recognition ritual of beak and neck rubbing when he flies in with seaweed for their nest.
DISTINCTIVE: The gannets have striking eye markings and a golden crown. All pictures by Julie Haines
ALWAYS BUSY: There's constant action at the Plateau Colony at Cape Kidnappers