Colonies in fine fet­tle

The mys­te­ri­ous death­sof 60 yel­low-eyed pen­guins this year on Otago Penin­sula has not sig­nif­i­cantly af­fected the species’ pop­u­la­tion or the tourism.

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It’s busi­ness as usual for Dunedin’s wildlife tour op­er­a­tors, as the Otago Penin­sula’s yel­low-eyed pen­guins pre­pare their young to leave the nest. This is de­spite an iso­lated and fa­tal ill­ness that struck some of the area’s oth­er­wise healthy adult yel­low-eyed pen­guin pop­u­la­tion over a brief pe­riod in late Jan­uary. Na­tive to New Zealand, yel­low-eyed pen­guins are among the rarest of the world’s 18 species of pen­guin.

While vet­eri­nar­i­ans from Massey Univer­sity are still in­ves­ti­gat­ing the mys­te­ri­ous death of about 60 pen­guins, pos­si­bly caused by a marine biotoxin, the eco-tourism op­er­a­tors on the penin­sula are re­lieved over­all num­bers at their view­ing sites have not suf­fered sig­nif­i­cantly.

The Otago Penin­sula had been host­ing around 180 breed­ing pairs of yel­low-eyed pen­guins, the deaths hav­ing oc­curred mainly in ones and twos across the area’s 15 breed­ing sites, so losses were spread out and there­fore not ob­vi­ous at most lo­ca­tions.

Sev­eral eco-tour busi­nesses op­er­ate from dif­fer­ent parts of the penin­sula, and all report pen­guin view­ing has not no­tice­ably changed over the last sev­eral weeks

Sur­veil­lance of the ex­ist­ing pop­u­la­tion, as­sist­ing the un­der­weight ju­ve­niles and es­tab­lish­ing the cause of the re­cent ill­ness are now key for those in­volved with their wel­fare: the De­part­ment of Con­ser­va­tion, Yel­low-eyed Pen­guin Trust, landown­ers and oth­ers.

The prob­lem ap­pears to be con­fined only to the yel­low-eyed pen­guins; lit­tle blue pen­guins were un­af­fected as were other wildlife.

The yel­low-eyed adult and young pen­guins were all in par­tic­u­larly good health this year, af­ter en­joy­ing a good breed­ing sea­son, says David Agnew, DoC pro­gramme man­ager bio­di­ver­sity as­sets.

As well as view­ing adults head­ing out to sea first thing, and re­turn­ing at the end of the day to roost af­ter feed­ing, vis­i­tors to the penin­sula will also be able to see adults start­ing to re­turn to land for their four-week moult. Some chicks have al­ready started leav­ing the nest sites and head­ing into the waves.

While the sud­den loss of yel­low-eyed pen­guins was a set­back to con­ser­va­tion ef­forts, the Yel­low-eyed Pen­guin Trust was re­lieved it has been iso­lated to only the Otago Penin­sula, says the trust’s gen­eral man­ager, Sue Mur­ray.

It was not as bad as a sim­i­lar event in 1990 when the pop­u­la­tion bounced back.

Dunedin, con­sid­ered the eco­cap­i­tal of New Zealand, is con­sis­tently rated highly by vis­i­tors from out-of-town.

Sir David Bel­lamy, one of the world’s top en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, ob­served that the area is the world’s finest ex­am­ple of eco­tourism.

A view­ing up­date from the Otago Penin­sula’s wildlife op­er­a­tors:

There are 27 pen­guins, in­clud­ing sev­eral nests, in the im­me­di­ate view­ing area cov­ered by Elm Wildlife Tours, with op­er­a­tor Brian Tem­ple­ton re­port­ing chicks look­ing par­tic­u­larly healthy and strong for the time of year.

Na­ture’s Won­ders have a view­ing area with big colonies of both yel­low-eyed and blue pen­guins, and Perry Reid says that more than 20 yel­low-eyed pen­guins have started their moult.

Ini­ti­a­tion: Three yel­low-eyed pen­guin chicks about to head out to sea for the first time.

Pho­tos: GLEN RI­LEY

Mu­tual preen­ing: Along-term breed­ing pair of yel­low-eyed pen­guins tend each other.

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