Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Once in a lifetime encounter with an emperor penguin

Yesterday afternoon I caught the news that an emperor penguin had appeared on Peka Peka Beach just north of Waikanae. I was at work and had to resist the urge to drop everything and drive there right then.

On the bus ride home from work my mind was awash with competing thoughts. Wednesday is a "Writing Day" which means I make my own hours and could easily drive the hour and ten minutes north and back and still have a solid afternoon of writing.  But what about the crowds of people that would surely be there? And what if the penguin had already buggered off back into the sea? But, as readers of this blog will know by the number of bird photos I've been posting lately, I'm mad about birds. But this poor lost penguin must be sick, and it's probably a really sad sight. And what if this is some terrible consequence of global warming? Or problems with its penguin parents? But how often will this opportunity come up? etc. etc.

Another thing: earlier this month I got up at 5am and spent 2 hours in the dark and one hour after daybreak at Tarakena Bay trying to spot Little Blue Penguins.  June is probably the least likely month of the year to see one around Wellington, and I didn't have any luck (though I may have heard nesting penguins squawking in the dark... not sure). But I resolved to have another vigil later on in the year in the hopes of observing the world's smallest penguin species that just so happens to live on my back door.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd have the chance of seeing the world's largest penguin species on the mainland of New Zealand, let alone this very same month!

So damn it, I got up early this morning and increased my carbon footprint, bunked off writing, and became one of nature's rubberneckers.

And it was TOTALLY worth it.

The penguin was still there.  When I arrived just after 8.30am, there was a crowd of about 15 people a couple of hundred metres down the beach from the car park.  They were all quiet and slow moving and respectful of, and probably awed by, the stocky penguin that lay on its belly a considerate distance away.  Seeing these people in their gumboots and polar fleeces, some with primary school aged children, I felt a lot better about coming. We weren't a bunch of trouble makers. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, something we'll all remember for a long long time, and we were behaving like it. (There's nothing worse than sharing an awesome experience with someone who doesn't get it. I put a hex on a woman I overheard at the Grand Canyon saying, "Well that was the biggest let down of my entire life, Earl").

I didn't see anyone obviously from DOC while I was there: it was all very up-standing citizens managing their own behaviour. I hope it continued that way and that if anyone is considering a visit in the coming days (no one is sure how like it'll stick around), can I please ask that you use your common sense (no huge groups) and treat the moment with the reverence it deserves.

At one point the penguin, who I am taking the liberty of naming Peka (in the spirit of Opo the Dolphin and countless other unoriginal but entirely perfect names for wild animals that capture our imaginations), stood up and I heard a lady exclaim, "Oh you majestic creature, you."  Okay, so she was a bit weird, but it was entirely in keeping with the mood on the beach.

Peka looked plump and calm. Maybe a little thirsty, but that's to be expected.  I can't imagine the new things he's seen the last 48 hours, but he seemed to be lapping up the attention.  He/she (they're not sure if it's a boy or a girl yet; it's only around 10 months old) wasn't phased by the welcome swallows that were swooping around the driftwood and cutty grass (they weren't dive bombing the penguin or anything), or even when a yellowhammer landed a metre away from it.

I've made a wee video which I've set to The Tragically Hip's 'Emperor Penguin' (of course!).  Beyond the title and the one verse that discusses emperor penguins, the refrain about "physical impossibility" seems to sum up my morning.  An emperor penguin standing nearly a metre high, 4,000 - 7,000kms from home (depending on which report you read). Not impossible, clearly. But pretty improbable, I'd say (the only other emperor penguin sighting in New Zealand was in Southland in 1967).

Kia ora, Peka. I hope you have a long and happy life, wherever that may be.


Bookman Beattie said...

What will happen to Peka? Surely "he" can't swim all the way back to Antactica?

Craig Cliff said...

To help or not to help, that is the question.

As the DOC spokesperson said in this interview ( "Because it's come this far north, it's now been introduced to diseases - exotic diseases. The last thing we want to do is take those diseases back to the Emperor Penguin colonies in Antarctica."

If he/she sticks around for a week or more, do we "save" Peka and take him/her "home" and risk the lives of thousands of less adventurous emperors, or do we find him another home (some sub-Antarctic Island? Chch's Antarctic Centre - heaven forbid?) or are we rational and cold-hearted enough to let nature take its course?

It's a compelling narrative. Only time will tell if it's one suitable for a children's book!

Tom Fitzsimons said...

It's pretty sweet how Peka appears to be grooving in time to the music.