Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Discovering Ancient and Modern Creatures Around Oamaru and Dunedin

[Apologies to J.K. Rowling for the title] Our route from Lake Tekapo to the east coast took us past the village of Duntroon, home to a tiny museum called Vanished World. The staff person, happy to have interested visitors, told us all about the strange fossils in the museum. They had all been found in local farmers’ fields and dated back 20 to 30 million years, to when the area was a warm, shallow sea. The fossil bones came from many different animals, including early types of baleen whales, long-nosed dolphins with shark-like teeth and spiky tusks, and a penguin as tall as me. (For more information, see

Our discoveries continued at our next two overnight stops, the coastal town of Oamaru and the small university city of Dunedin. In both places, the excellent natural and cultural history museums introduced us to more curiosities of New Zealand’s ancient and more recent past. We saw fossil bones of multiple species of moa—ostrich-like flightless birds than ranged from the size of a turkey to almost as tall as a giraffe—and their only nonhuman predator, a 30-pound raptor called Haast’s eagle. The moa proved to be an abundant and easy food source for the Maori settlers who reached New Zealand from Polynesia around 1,200 AD. Because of overhunting, all of the moa species, and the eagles that relied on them, were extinct by the mid-1400s.

Even today, though, New Zealand has some wonderful animals that can be found only in this part of the globe. They include the world’s smallest penguin, the little blue penguin, which is less than a foot high and weighs just two pounds. The Cape Wanbrow headland in Oamaru is home to a colony of about 100 little blue penguins. After feeding at sea all day, they return to their burrows on land around sunset. A conservation group in Oamaru has built viewing stands near the penguins’ route equipped with special lights of a color that the penguins can’t see (no photographs allowed).

We went one evening and were enchanted to watch the penguins float over the surf to shore together in groups of 10 to 20 called rafts. After drying their feathers, they hopped one by one up the rocky bank, then waited at the top until the group was reassembled before running—with a head-down, darting-waddling motion—en masse as fast as they could for their nests. Being small prey animals, they obviously feel safer in a crowd.

Orange road sign with picture of two white and black penguins
A penguin crossing sign in Oamaru
Museum diorama of a large yellow-eyed penguin and two little blue penguins
A museum diorama of two rare penguin species we saw but couldn’t photograph: the yellow-eyed penguin and the little blue penguin

I had an even more amazing penguin sighting on the other side of Cape Wanbrow. A stretch of sand there called Bushy Beach is home to a few yellow-eyed penguins, which live only in New Zealand. Yellow-eyed penguins are one of the world’s rarest penguin species. They’re critically endangered, with only a few thousand left.

A trail runs along the top of the cliffs above the beach and leads to a blind where you can look down and hope to see penguins returning to shore in the late afternoon. No sooner had we started down the trail than I paused at a gap in the trees, looked down, and saw a single yellow-eyed penguin standing on the beach. Unlike the hunched-over, scurrying little blue penguins, this medium-size penguin with a stripe of yellow feathers by its eyes was standing quite erect. I called quietly to Melissa, but she was too far ahead of me to hear. (Signs had told us to keep our voices down to avoid frightening the penguins.) I gazed down at it for a couple of seconds until it walked toward the cliffside out of my view, too quickly for me to take a picture. We didn’t see any other penguins that day—though we saw lots of fur seals sleeping on the beach—and only later did I learn how rare and special my sighting had been.

Melissa in a red coat standing at a wooden railing with a beach, green hillside, and cloudy sky behind her
Melissa above Bushy Beach, where Chris saw a rare yellow-eyed penguin

We saw more rare animals on the Otago Peninsula, a long rocky peninsula of beautiful scenery that juts far out to sea next to the city of Dunedin. The peninsula is sometimes visited by New Zealand sea lions, one of the rarest sea lion species in the world. By the late 19th century, they had been hunted almost to extinction for their pelts and the oil in their blubber. Most of the 12,000 remaining animals live on remote islands between the New Zealand mainland and Antarctica. But in recent decades, some have started coming to the South Island to breed at the Otago Peninsula.

During our two-day stay on the peninsula, a small group of sea lions was lounging in a marshy inlet a mile from our B&B. We kept our distance from the big brown bull and his harem of silky gray cows (shown at the top of the page)—all much bigger than the fur seals we’d seen near Omaru. But we were able to watch two adorable sea lion pups at close distance from behind a fence. They were diving and spinning and splashing in shallow water, sometimes chasing each other and sometimes tossing clumps of dirt around with their mouths. They reminded us of children playing at the neighborhood pool, though without the shrieking.

The Otago Peninsula is also notable as a breeding ground for one of the world’s largest seabirds, the Northern royal albatross. Albatross spend most of their life feeding and sleeping at sea, traveling vast distances over the open ocean. They come to land only to mate and raise chicks once every two years. Most albatross breed on remote offshore islands. A large meadow atop cliffs at the far end of the Otago Peninsula is home to the only mainland breeding colony of albatross in the world.

A conservation group, the Royal Albatross Centre, works hard to protect the breeding grounds and monitor the health of the population. To fund its work, it offers albatross viewings from a glass-fronted blind built into the hillside. When we visited, we could see four or five fluffy white chicks—looking like enormous cotton balls—sitting near their nests. The chicks had gotten so big that both parents had to hunt seafood all day to feed them. 

Large fluffy white royal albatross chick sitting on grass

It was late afternoon, and we saw many adults returning to their nests. Watching these streamlined pure white birds, with narrow jet-black wings 10 feet from tip to tip, circle and glide on the winds above us was thrilling. They looked like hang gliders or pterodactyls. Truly a marvel of nature.

Royal albatross gliding with black wings outstretched over water background
Royal albatross spend most of their life at sea, coming ashore only to breed and raise chicks

Why does this post talk only about birds and marine mammals? The reason is that New Zealand had no land mammals until humans brought them here in the past 800 years. Instead, birds, reptiles, bats, insects, and water animals filled all of the ecological niches in this isolated land for millions of years before humans arrived.

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