The Road Less Traveled

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Oceania » New Zealand » South Island » Dunedin
February 19th 2020
Published: March 18th 2020
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Heading further south on the South Island East Coast, our goal for the day was the Otago Peninsula and the Royal Albatross Center. We had originally planned to also watch the small blue penguins come ashore, but that encounter takes place at sunset and at this latitude at this time of year sunset comes late. We decided instead to head on back to Dunedin and our evening lodging after visiting the Albatross Center.

The albatross is famous in legend and literature. We are all familiar with "Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink" from Coleridge, and with the expression "albatross around your neck". Still, this literate familiarity does not prepare you for the majesty of seeing these magnificent birds aloft. The albatross spends most of its life at sea, and albatross pairs (they mate for life) return to land to nest only every two years. Generally, this occurs on islands, the more remote the better. But in one place on earth, they meet for their reunion on the mainland. (Well, technically is IS on an island, but a very large one). In 1919 a single royal albatross egg was found on the slope of Taiaroa Head, just outside of Dunedin, on the beautiful Otago Peninsula. In 1938 an ornithologist spotted the first fledgling, and since at least that time the area has been under intensive management in terms of elimination and control of pests, including human visitors, and actively monitoring and assisting the breeding process. For instance, at times they will purloin an egg from a struggling breeding pair and substituting it with a decoy, then replace the fledgling when it hatches. Rats and other problem pests are actively excluded. Visitors go into an enclosed building and view the nesting birds through plexiglass windows, with no access to the nesting sites. Nonetheless, the view of an albatross soaring below us, looking small despite its nearly 10 foot wingspan, is almost breathtaking, with its mixture of myth and legend and science and hope for larger numbers in the future. There are disagreements as to how many different species, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature recognizes 22, and all are endangered to a greater or lesser degree. The headland also contains nesting sites for cormorant species (including the rare Otago shag) and other seabirds. I was particularly drawn to the red-billed seagull.

The road to Taiaroa Head was a narrow two-track paved road which was very winding and went right along the edge of the water until ascending up the headland. We had planned to return the same way. While visiting the Albatross Center we were told about a much shorter and much more scenic route up over the hills, but were warned that it was slow because it was also very narrow and even more winding up and down hills. We were resigned to the original trek, but in following the GPS we unexpectedly found ourselves virtually alone on one of the most beautiful roads we have traveled.

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