The blue penguin aka the little penguin, or fairy penguin, are also known to the Maori as Karora. With distinctively blue plumage and white underbellies, these little characters are the smallest of the worlds seventeen species of penguin and stand twenty-five centimetres tall.
Today, Oamaru proudly proclaims itself as the 'Penguin Capital of New Zealand' and its hard to imagine that Oamaru's only tourist attraction were until recently considered to be pests, nesting under peoples homes. We sat in a small wooden auditorium on Oamaru Harbour, where a nesting area has been created, secure from predators.
The penguins typically spend their days hunting twenty kilometres out to sea, before returning to their roost at dusk and as the sun began to set, the first of the blue penguins surfed in on the tide, flipping and flopping over boulders to reach their nests. Hopping and waddling about the shore, there was soon a small group of penguins washing and preening themselves, oiling their plumage against the cold. The group loitered together awhile, and having freshened themselves up from their days work, called out to their nests, before migrating en-masse.
Although lacking grace out of the water, the penguins could pick up some speed when necessary, and many ducked their head low to the ground, accelerating their little feet as quickly as they could manage. A series of small holes set amongst grassy hills in a green turfed landscape made up the penguins homes, protected by a tall cliff. Our guide, speaking quietly, so as not to disturb the penguins, pointed, "do you see up there, up on the cliff?" Somehow one of the more ambitious penguins had managed to do a Spiderman impression by climbing a near vertical fifty foot cliff. Either that or perhaps the crafty little bugger had remember what his wings were for. The little world of the blue penguins looked something like a crazy golf course, with its rolling hills and holes in the ground. All it was lacking was a replica windmill and a set of putters. Penguin calls cooed and quacked, back and forth between the new arrivals and those who had spent the day in their nest, welcoming them home.
"Hi honey I'm home"
"How was your day, dear?"
"Had a very good swim, and caught lots of fish"
"So what did you bring back for supper?"
"What, fish again?"
"Well, you knew what to expect when you married a penguin!"
Still, life wasn't all fish, fish, fish, and there was plenty of time for sex, as some of the more amorous penguin partners hopped on top of one another for a quickie. Although blue penguins partner for life, like humans they have a ten percent divorce rate.
Sitting in the amphitheatre, looking at them though and to be honest, its any wonder they can tell one from another, but then I suppose the penguins, if they could, would probably say the same about people. The Department of Conservation staff who look after the site, have an extraordinary insight into the lives of these creatures, and our guide enjoyed telling us one bit of juicy gossip, of how one penguin had indulged in an extra-marital fling with another penguin whilst her partner was out fishing for the day. Watching the domestic day-to-day ritual of the little penguins was like watching a soap opera from a different world, one filled with quirky characters, rivalries, sex and fish. There are even tiny cameras installed in the nests so the staff can monitor and observe the colony. Watching the televisions in the main visitor centre, it was rather like we were watching 'Penguin Big Brother', although viewers do not have the opportunity to vote for their favourite penguin. Not yet, anyway.