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