The Doctor's (not) in (yet): Celebrating Milestones in Otago, New Zealand


With the submission of my full doctoral proposal last week, I thought about a proper way to celebrate this little milestone in my PhD journey. I’ve spent many weeks and months over this one document, reading and writing about marine wildlife tourism, its many facets and its importance for a variety of communities. I indulged myself really, without being able to step back from theory which can be dissatisfying at times. Hence, the trip to Otago on New Zealand’s South Island was a great way to treat myself after months of hard work and to reconnect with nature (a top motivation why people want to get close to wildlife…) as well as with my profession as a marine wildlife tourism nerd.

It’s been five years since I visited southern New Zealand and after a year living in an urban jungle like Auckland, I enjoyed the seclusion and, I admit it, the limited number of people. Dunedin is a student town with its university having an excellent reputation. Many who work with marine wildlife and/or tourism in New Zealand are located at Otago. That I ended up at AUT and not on South Island again (I studied one semester at Lincoln University), is my supervisor’s “fault”. So, great location for a long weekend out!

Otago is a great spot when it comes to marine avifauna or seabirds. In Oamaru, an hour north from Dunedin, there’s the chance to visit a blue penguin colony that was established in the early 1990s and which is, besides the steampunk, a main attraction of the small town. Blue penguins are not only special because of their colour but also because they are the smallest penguin you may ever encounter!

On the tip of the scenic Otago peninsula, the Royal Albatross Centre is worth a visit when you’re on a Tiki Tour (stopping your car along your way to visit popular places). Less surprising, it is all about the Albatross and provides interesting information about the birds. You may not be a bird nerd but these guys are pretty impressive! Plus, it is the world’s only mainland breeding colony of royal albatross, which is pretty amazing. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any…But that’s the nature of wildlife tourism. You never know what you get (and whether you get anything at all ;)). There’s also the possibility to see the blue penguins which come to shore at dusk. The centre provided a viewing platform down the cliff to facilitate a good view on the animals without disturbing them too much. Facilities like these are a great way for managing large groups of people.

The Albatross tour we booked that would have also brought us out on a boat unfortunately got cancelled, as we were the only people. Also, this is wildlife tourism…

Also located on Otago peninsula is Penguin Place Conservation Reserve. Established in the 1980s, this facility is dedicated to the conservation of the yellow-eyed penguin, a species that is endangered and due to this, pretty rare. It is fully funded by its guided tours with the revenue allowing habitat restoration, predator control, research and the care for injured or malnourished individuals. Other than blue penguins, yellow-eyed penguins do not fancy large crowds of conspecifics and only hang around with their partner. We were extremely lucky to witness four individuals coming to shore, waddling up a small path to their shelters in the dunes.[nbsp] During this time of the year, it is fairly difficult to spot them. So again, extremely lucky!

My personal highlight was Sandfly Bay where we met resting NZ sea lions on the beach. These guys are not as abundant as NZ fur seals, with bigger colonies found on the sub Antarctic islands. Therefore, we were pretty excited about this personal encounter – we were pretty much the only people around, which was, needless to say, just wonderful. Despite the excitement, we made sure we were at least 10m away from the napping sea lions, as recommended by the Department of Conservation (DoC). Not only because we didn’t want to disturb them but also to ensure our own safety. Unlike fur seals, NZ sealions are not very shy when it comes to people and will charge you when you bother them. For many, a resting animal is not very exciting as play or mating behaviour is far more interesting. However, sharing the environment with such large and powerful mammals is still very rewarding, especially when you take your time observing. One large male came out of the dunes and made his way back into the water. Very impressive and a bit scary. Having said that I am wondering how people cannot feel awe and respect for these animals. These guys weigh several hundred KGs and we had no interest in being chased down the beach by one of them…In general, seals often get harassed by people who do not care about personal space (and their own safety).

The cherry on the cake would have been to spot some whales from the cliffs. But being an active marine wildlife watcher again and meeting native treasures was the best way to treat myself. This will help me to survive my oral examination next month which probably is as scary as being chased down the beach by an angry NZ sea lion…




Royal Albatross Centre

Blue Penguin Colony Oamaru

Penguin Place Conservation Reserve