Hoiho, Rāpoka & Pāpango

I promised you wildlife, and I’m going to give you some wildlife! Our first encounter with something larger than the standard birdlife down in the Catlins was a male New Zealand sea lion, or whakahao, sunning himself at Waipapa Point.

New Zealand sea lions are one of the rarest sea lion species in the world. With a population of only about 12,000 individuals, they are classified as Nationally Vulnerable. They face threats such as disease, pup mortality, limited food availability and negative impacts from fisheries and humans in general, which has caused their main breeding colony to decline. While most of their population can be found in the Subantarctic Islands, they are establishing themselves more and more on the South Island.

We, of course, were incredibly fortunate to see them while there! Everyone kept a respectful distance from this chap, and he wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry.

At the end of the day, after exploring the length of the Catlins seashore, we made for the crown jewel, Nugget Point. Little did we know that the best sightings would be along the way. Andy spotted both of them. On the beach beside the road, there were two female sea lions, or kake (the Māori name is different for each gender, and the generic name is rāpoka).

They may look like lumps in the sand, but that’s a couple of spooning sea lions. Andy has an eagle eye, spotting them from afar! There was another (human) couple there when we arrived, and the man got far too close, which is both dangerous and also disrespectful to the animals since it can agitate them. Luckily (for him), they didn’t get upset. I had my telephoto lens, so I was able to snap pictures from a safe distance as one of the ladies woke up from her nap.

She’s very photogenic, definitely working all her angles.

Time to flop back down and get comfy.

Alright, that’s the spot!

It was hard to say goodbye to these two lovely ladies, but I figured I had to let them rest. After all, who wants to be photographed incessantly while napping?

After visiting the incredible Nugget Point, which I’ll cover in the next blog, we headed to Roaring Bay on the way back, which is home to a well-known yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho viewing hide. They’re still a rare sight, but we hoped luck would be on our side.

The DOC ranger we met on the way down said that she hadn’t spotted any yet, but we didn’t let that deter us. We hunkered down in front of the viewing slats, and stared incredibly hard at the coast, scanning back and forth, looking for little bobbing heads. Only a couple minutes in, Andy spotted something! He’d done it again. It was a yellow-eyed penguin coming in from a hard day’s work out at sea!

Hoiho are another endemic NZ species that faces many challenges, which has lead them to be classified as Threatened-Nationally Endangered. Their population is estimated at 4,000-5,000 mature individuals as of 2019, with two distinct populations, one of which is on the Subantarctic Islands and the other on Stewart Island and the South Island. They are especially vulnerable to predation by dogs and human disturbance and are also affected by disease, climate change and fisheries.

A good deal of the work that organizations like the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and other conservation groups do is to educate people, since a lot of penguin deaths are preventable. When people understand the importance of keeping their dogs on a leash or not disturbing penguin nesting areas when hiking or taking photographs, then this can make a huge impact on hoiho populations. That’s why hides like the one Andy and I were using are such a great asset, because you can observe the penguins from a distance without disturbing their nesting patterns or causing stress. People come to these places because they love wildlife and want to get close to it, but we have to respect the animals that call these wild places home. Give them the space they deserve, just as we need our own.

It doesn’t necessarily look very easy for a small penguin to get to shore, with waves crashing all around, though I guess they are the experts after all.

I ended up with about a hundred images on my camera at the end of this, but I couldn’t stop snapping, and it was also the best way to view this guy through my telephoto lens. We need to get a pair of binoculars.

Hoiho live in native coastal forests, scrub or dense flax, although they also use pasture and exotic vegetation. Nest sites are carefully selected – a suitable site should have a solid back such as a log, rock or flax plant, and provide shelter from harsh weather and the heat of the sun. The nest itself is a shallow bowl typically filled with twigs, grass and other vegetation. Sites are accessed from the sea via rock platforms, or sandy / gravel beaches.” –Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust

This penguin was definitely headed home to its abode for the evening, although crossing the pebbly beach takes quite some time, especially if you stop to preen yourself every few steps. Gotta look good for your mate!

This next one might be the best of all. Haaaaay!

I think my favorite fact I’ve learned while researching hoiho for this blog is that their scientific name, Megadyptes antipodes means “big diver from the southern lands.” Also, doesn’t Megadyptes antipodes just roll off the tongue? To top it all off, its Māori name hoiho means “noise shouter” because of its shrill call. “Hoiho, Yellow-eyed Penguin, Noise Shouter and Big Diver from the Southern Lands” – a title that almost rivals Daenerys Targaryen, I’d say.

We had the hide to ourselves for most of the time we were there, which was nice. When a family showed up, we quickly pointed out the penguin not too long before it disappeared from sight, so they got the excitement of seeing it as well. Soon after, we headed out, giddy with our amazing experience. How lucky were we to see one of the world’s rarest penguin species in its natural habitat?

Although I’m skipping ahead, it fits with the theme. Our next destination was Twizel, and our house wasn’t far from Lake Ohau. On a walk, we came across a family of ducks that turned out to be New Zealand scaup or pāpango. Although they’re fairly common, the ducklings have adorable spots and they make a photogenic family.

The five little ones had a rest while mom swam nearby.

But don’t go too far, mom!!

Scaup are diving ducks, so they pop underwater for their food and then emerge like bath toys. There are some at Zealandia, and they’re always fun to watch.

That’s all, folks! Stay tuned for the last bit of the Catlins, and then on to Twizel. 🙂

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