On the South Island, the harbor of Oamaru, the pretty seaside town lush with beautiful Victorian architecture, is home to some of New Zealand’s most interesting residents. As it happens, we’ve arranged to dine with them on our Wonders of New Zealand trip.
Our tiny “hosts,” a colony of blue penguins, may be small in size (adults reach a height of just 13 inches) but they attract big attention at the harborside restaurants of Oamaru. Perhaps it’s their unusual slate-blue plumage from which they get their name that draws bird lovers here. Maybe visitors are captivated by the most unusual congregation of penguin and human. Or maybe people flock here to see them simply because they’re so cute.
Our dinnertime visit is well-timed so that we’ll see them waddling to and fro on the beach. Many of them will have just returned from a busy day swimming and foraging for food. It’s not uncommon for them to have covered 30 miles in a day. Their menu—much simpler than yours for the evening—consists of a routine catch of squid, some small species of cod and herring, and other small sea creatures, some of which they bring back for their chicks during birthing season.
Of course, this tiny bird is also vulnerable to predators like sharks and sea lions; sadly, some may not return from the hunt. But evolution has given them their own camouflage suit. The blue feathers on their backs make them invisible to predators swimming above them. And their white bellies help them blend in with the shimmering surface of the harbor if predators are below them.
Like true domestics, they hunt close to shore, perhaps so as not to wander too far from their nests and their chicks. They can dive as deep as 60 feet, staying underwater for up to a minute. However, unlike true domestics and unlike some other penguin species, males remain loyal to females only during mating and hatching season. Afterward, they may move on to another nesting area for a new mate.
Interestingly, they don’t always make their own nests. In many cases, including in Oamaru, they are opportunistic squatters, taking up residence in burrows dug out by other animals or in manmade structures like inside hollow pipes, among loose timber, or in crevices underneath shorefront buildings. The colony at Oamaru consists of more than 130 blue penguins. Some of them have been breeding here for over 18 years, which is double the average life span of blue penguins living in the wild.
The Oamaru colony of blue penguins moved in as recently as the 1990s. When it became clear that they were here to stay, volunteers worked to make the area suitable for breeding and nesting. So successful was the effort to make the birds feel at home that the volunteers received the Otago Regional Council’s Environmental Award in 1995.
We think you’ll find them to be delightful dining companions.