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Sleepover, with penguins

Staying the night at a penguin colony isn’t just for scientists. On Banks Peninsula you can view penguins and seals in their natural environment and even take part in a penguin monitoring programme, writes Julie Haines.

It's not often you come close to accidentally tripping over a snoozing fur seal. But at Flea Bay on Banks Peninsula we nearly did just that when we clambered full tilt over rocks on the beach.

We were staying at the bay as part of Pohatu Penguin's 24-hour Pohatu Package.

Our tour began in Akaroa, a French-influenced village sitting in the caldera of an extinct volcano. Our guide Kevin Parthonnaud drove us up to the rim, stopping at 250m so we could admire the view of the turquoise harbour, which has a milky quality due to glacial silt.

Akaroa means “long harbour”, and gazing across the picturesque scene before us it was difficult to believe that there could be a more beautiful sight anywhere in New Zealand. But then we stopped again at 500m and 700m and were blown away time and again.

Banks Peninsula farmers try to balance farming with conservation. In the early 1900s only 1 percent of the native forest remained, but thanks to conservation efforts patchy regeneration has begun. Ngaio, five-finger and kanuka grow alongside parts of the road that we travelled, and native bush is slowly growing through the gorse that carpets many of the hills in brilliant hues of gold.

When we reached 700m we drove across a farm on hills formed by lava flows, with spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean in the distance. Lambs that weren't more than a couple of days old watched our progress with interest from the side of the road.

Instead of driving the whole way to Pohatu, guests have the option to walk the last portion on a section of the three-day Banks Track. The walk through Tutakakahikura Scenic Reserve passes through some of the peninsula's original forest, including some beech trees that are over 400 years old.

We took the 90-minute option (there's also a three-hour walk) which descends the hill following a stream which cascades alongside the track in a series of waterfalls. One has a swimming hole beneath it which would be ideal for cooling off on hot summer hikes. Another has a rocky moss-covered ledge behind the falls. We clambered carefully over the rocks, the breeze catching the water spray and lightly showering us, until we were behind the falls. It was an exhilarating and refreshing experience.

As we neared Flea Bay the bush cleared to reveal meadows with lambs calling to their mothers and a few calves standing cautiously by their mums. One lamb struggled to get to its feet and we realised he was newly born, so we sat on a rock and watched as he suckled his mum then set off after her on shaky, spindly legs.

The cabins at Flea Bay were also surrounded by playful lambs, with penguin nests dotted around.

At dusk we joined a penguin tour to learn about the ongoing penguin conservation efforts at Pohatu.

Our guide Joey Cataliotti explained that the white-flippered penguin is endemic to New Zealand and only breeds once a year, laying two eggs — “A, and B for back-up”. They have started interbreeding with blue penguins and yellow-eyed penguins, who are more prolific breeders, and it is hoped that the interbred offspring will eventually lay eggs twice a year.

The breeding process is physically demanding. The males and females take turns with nest duties, until the chicks are three weeks old and much hungrier so both adults need to go to sea to find enough food. By the time the chicks are ready to go to sea themselves at eight weeks old, the parents have lost half their body weight.

Penguins will nest anywhere says Joey. Some will go 800m inland or 200m uphill at Flea Bay.

“We left our kayaks on the ground and then we couldn't use them for a whole year because they were filled with nesting penguins,” she said.

Consequently, Pohatu Penguins has built 150 nesting boxes to assist with tracking efforts. Each box is inspected once a week so the penguins aren't disturbed by high human traffic.

The seafront boxes are hot property and some penguins have scars from fighting for them.

“In this area there's a lot of divorce, there's a lot of wife swapping and then getting back together. They're here to breed,” said Joey, as we joined her on her rounds inspecting the boxes.

Each lid is opened for a matter of seconds, long enough to note what type of penguin is inside, whether there is fresh poop (a positive sign the parents have full tummies and are sharing nest duties), whether there are eggs or chicks, and also to check for ticks. The ticks have become a major problem this year and Joey sprays the boxes with vinegar to deter them.

Flea Bay has the largest colony of Australasian little penguins on mainland New Zealand and Pohatu Penguins monitors breeding to study whether the penguins come into condition at the same time. This is crucial because if breeding occurs too late in the season and coincides with the penguins' annual moult, the birds and their chicks will starve because penguins can't swim for 10 to 14 days while moulting.

On our tour we saw a few penguins sitting in their nests, one completely empty nest, another with two eggs and absentee parents, and finally in our lucky last box we hit the jackpot — an adult and two one-week-old chicks.

We then looked across the bay with binoculars to watch groups of penguins “rafting in” — sitting on the water with full tummies waiting for a safe time to return to shore.

Nearby a Northern Giant Petrel that had travelled from the subantarctic islands also sat on the water, hoping to catch himself a supper of penguin. Other predators — rats, kittens and mustelids — are mostly kept at bay by the intensive tracking programme at Pohatu. As for the fur seals living in Flea Bay, penguins aren't a desirable meal.

“Really they're quite lazy and the penguins, they're hard work,” said Joey.

Pohatu Penguins gets a lot of its funding from its Adopt a Penguin programme. It also recently received a grant for microchipping and plans to microchip 50 breeding pairs and their chicks next year.

As night fell we passed trees of nesting pied shags and returned to our treehouse accommodation, having been warned not to roam the property at night and startle the wildlife with torchlight. The screeching calls of penguins floated across to us on the night air as they excitedly returned to their nests to feed their young, under a brilliant unpolluted night sky.

The next morning Kevin returned to guide us on a relaxing kayak trip on Pohatu Marine Reserve to experience the area's natural wonders from another vantage point. We passed a few of the “penguin runs” made by groups of penguins so they can race as quickly as possible up the hillside to their nests from the rocky beach. We saw three penguins resting in a large crack in a rock alongside one run, taking a break from fishing. Another penguin dived repeatedly into the sea near us, resurfacing many metres away some time later, while a few others bobbed on the water like ducks.

The highlight of the kayak trip is the opportunity to get close to Flea Bay's seals, although some lucky people also get to see Hector's dolphins. The seal pups at Flea Bay are born from mid-November to mid-December, but when I visited in October I saw a large number of last year's pups sunning themselves on the rocks, and to an untrained eye such as mine these tiny 11-month-old pups still looked newborn.

With the main seal colony across the bay from Pohatu, and the bulls dotted along the length of the bay hoping to establish their own harem of five females, you're guaranteed to spot a seal on the kayak trips. Seals do most of their hunting at night, so by day they chill on the rocks, occasionally breaking the monotony with a dip in the sea or waking to bark at each other.

We passed one rocky outcrop with plentiful bulls which Kevin said is known as a “haul out”.

“It's where the bachelors hang around. It's like a club.”

After our relaxing kayak trip past Pohatu's towering cliffs and caves, we returned to shore and loaded up the van to return to Akaroa.

We were sad to leave the sparkling bay. As we drove away, we gazed at a seal languidly floating alongside the beach. He gradually became a small speck of black against the turquoise water as the van climbed the hill, and we departed nature's wonderland with happy smiles.

For bookings visit www.pohatu.co.nz

© Copyright Julie Haines 2021

The charming town of Akaroa, viewed from 250m in altitude
spectacular: Akaroa harbour sits in the crater of an extinct volcano.
The gorse covered hills around Akaroa provide shelter for native seedlings. Once the natives grow taller than the gorse, the gorse dies off from the shade.
The brilliant blue hues of the Pacific Ocean beckon en route to Akaroa Head Scenic Reserve.
Akaroa Head Scenic Reserve was the original location of Akaroa Lighthouse, before it was relocated to Akaroa township.
The walking track in Tutakakahikura Scenic Reserve passes endemic forest and a series of waterfalls on its way to Flea Bay
EXHILIRATING: A 90-minute hike through the Tutakakahikura Scenic Reserve passes a number of waterfalls. Walkers can clamber carefully behind this one.
Watch your step: fur seals are lurking at Flea Bay
Peaceful Flea Bay, home to penguins, seals and sheep
Joey Cataliotti, daughter of Pohatu Penguins owners Francis and Shireen Helps, monitors penguins. The family have spent the past three decades protecting white-flippered penguins from introduced predators
PEEKABOO: Joey Cataliotti, daughter of Pohatu Penguins owners Francis and Shireen Helps, monitors penguins. The family have spent the past three decades protecting white-flippered penguins from introduced predators.
keeping an eye out: A leisurely morning kayak to see penguins and seals in Pohatu Marine Reserve.
RELAXED: Kevin Parthonnaud guides kayakers through Pohatu Marine Reserve.All pictures by Julie Haines
CHOICES: Guests at Flea Bay have the option of staying in a gypsy wagon, treehouse or cabin.
Our final view of Flea Bay as we sadly said farewell