Penguins face challenges both on land and at sea. One of the consequences of evolving flightlessness during a period free of predators is that you become vulnerable should predators subsequently invade.
New Zealand and other southern islands and land masses with populations of penguins were not visited or settled by humans until the last few centuries. Once discovered, penguins were hunted for their meat, eggs, skin and oil. Although penguins are not directly preyed on by people any longer, things we introduced continue to threaten their survival: predators such as cats, dogs and mustelids; diseases; and habitat destruction.
Clearing the land for farming removes the vegetation yellow-eyed penguins need to shelter their nests. Indirect threats include pollution, overfishing and – perhaps most insidious – global warming. Periods of elevated sea-surface temperatures during the last 20 years have been associated with reductions in the yellow-eyed penguin’s principal prey species, and with toxic algal blooms that have decreased the survival and success of penguins breeding on the Otago Peninsula. Shifts in oceanic zones of high productivity require penguins to swim further to gather food for their chicks, lowering breeding success.
Penguins at risk
Of the nine species of penguins breeding in New Zealand’s territories, five are listed by the World Conservation Union as vulnerable or endangered. The three Antarctic species are partly protected by their relative isolation. That leaves the little penguin as New Zealand’s least endangered penguin species.
Despite their vulnerability, penguins can be relatively unaffected by well-managed tourism. If encountering penguins in the wild, keep your distance, stay quiet, and do not make sudden movements. Penguins will not come ashore if they are aware of your presence, so you could try taking cover in a hide or vegetation.
Some penguins, including the rockhopper, Adélie and emperor, breed in crowded colonies where there is a constant racket of trilling calls, rather like the din of hooters at a children’s party. Other species, such as the yellow-eyed penguin and Fiordland crested penguin, have lower-density nesting tucked away amongst vegetation for shade and shelter.
The best place to see little penguins is at the Ōamaru penguin colony, where more than 200 come ashore each evening during the peak of the breeding season. For yellow-eyed penguins, the Otago Peninsula offers the best viewing. At the Department of Conservation’s hide at Sandfly Bay you can witness penguins coming ashore in the late afternoon. Fiordland crested penguins are especially shy and perhaps most vulnerable to disturbance. However, keen walkers can find them at a few places on the Fiordland coast.