Albatross spotting on the Otago Peninsular

About half an hour from downtown Dunedin, out on the rather lovely Otago peninsular, is an albatross colony. For most of the year there are Royal albatross nesting here, and you can see them up close in the wild, doing their albatross thing. As soon as I found this out, I had to go. I’ve always wanted to see an albatross. So one sunny weekend, off we went to see the largest seabirds in the world.

We decided to take the 90 minute tour of the Royal Albatross centre, which costs $55. We wouldn’t usually spend so much for a tour, but it’s the only way to see the nests up close, and we figured the money is going towards protecting the birds, so it’s was a good thing to splash out on.

Our tour began in the visitor centre, with a short introductory talk about albatross and their habits. Every September adult birds return here to Taiaroa head to mate. Albatross mate for life, though sometimes these lifetime relationships don’t work out, and they try another mate. Or seven. The adult birds who build their nests here are returning to the place where they fledged. Royal albatross fly up to 190,000 km a year, equivalent to about five times round the earth. But they only breed in New Zealand.

After settling down to nest in November, the albatross parents take it in turns to incubate the egg, sitting on it for several days at a time. In January or February the chicks hatch, and then the parents fly out to find food for their chick. At first it’s fed on demand, and rapidly gains weight. Then the parents leave for longer and longer at a time, until by September the chicks fledge the nest. Some of them haven’t yet managed to fly when the other birds begin to set off for the waters off South America, where they spend the winter. When this happens a chick will just throw itself off the cliff, and presumably hope for the best. Once airborn, a young albatross won’t touch land again for three to five years. Five years, just roaming the oceans. When they do return to land, it will be back here at Taiaroa head.

Before we moved on to seeing the albatross up close, there was a chance to compare your height with an adult Royal Albatross wingspan.

Albatross are massive. An adult Royal albatross has a 3.3 metre wingspan, and weighs about 9 kg.

From the visitor centre it was a short walk up to the viewing gallery. On the way we had to be quiet, so as not to disturb the nesting chicks, but once inside we could ask questions. There were a few sets of binoculars to use to get a closer look at the chicks.

The closest nesting spots are right underneath the viewing gallery, but there weren’t any birds nesting so close when we were there. The best view was of a chick about 50 metres away. Through the binoculars you could get a really good look, especially when one of the chicks got up to have a flap around.

Our attempts at phone photography through binoculars weren’t that successful, but you get the idea. We should really get a new camera…

The views from Taiaroa head are almost worth the trek out here on their own. The headland sits at the entrance to the port of Dunedin, so we could watch cargo ships passing by, as well as checking out the albatross. Since we went on a cargo ship voyage, I can’t help wondering where every cargo ship we see is going, and where it’s come from. Thinking of freighters like this, as being on huge exciting journeys round the world, makes ports much more interesting for me.

Those white bits you can see in the grass towards the edge of the hill are the nesting albatross chicks we got a close up view of through the binoculars.

The sand spit that sticks out into the channel here has a couple of cottages on it. In the past there were two pilot boat captains living on the spit, who would compete for work guiding ships into port by literally racing each other to the ship. Unfortunately some well-meaning soul put a stop to this, and now it’s all very organised and civilised, with the pilots working for the port on a schedule.

The lighthouse on the headland, which used to be manned, was built in 1864.

Because we’d opted for the 90 minute tour rather than the 60 minute version (which is only $5 cheaper), after the viewing gallery we went on to have a look round the fortifications that are buried the headland. The underground fort was built in the 1880s, when New Zealand and Australia feared Russian invasion.

It took a while for coastal positions to be set up, and guns ordered in from Europe, and by the time most of them arrived the perceived threat had faded.

The most popular attraction in the fort seemed to be the biggest gun they had. It’s a disappearing gun, which revolves 360 degrees. So you set the bearing to fire at while the gun is hidden, and then it pops out to fire and pops down again. I’m not that into guns, really. But I was interested in the fact they’d marked the position of the lighthouse on the sight painted around the pit the gun sits in. The gun was only ever used in practice, and not very serious practice it seems. Wouldn’t want to knock the lighthouse down just so you can pretend to fight Russians.

We were told that the blast from the first few practice shots broke windows in the lighthouse, and after that the lighthouse keeper’s wife got a warning before any shots were fired, so she could open the windows and stop them from shattering.

In the belly of the fort was a diorama and lots of photos showing what life was like here when it was a large defence base during WW2. I found this really interesting, and I’d recommend going on the longer tour just for this bit.

There’s also the fact that you actually get a much better view of the nesting Albatross chicks from the fort than you do from the viewing gallery.

The closest chicks were nesting a few metres from one of the lookout posts in the fort.

And to top it all off you can pretend you’re in jail on the way back to the visitor centre.

Because we were visiting in July, when the chicks are getting quite big, the adult birds weren’t visiting frequently. They only return to feed their chick about every four days at this time of year, as the chick has stopped growing rapidly, and is getting ready to fledge. This meant we didn’t see any adult birds on our tour, but our guide suggested checking out the viewpoint on the other side of the carpark, just in case any adults flew in. We weren’t really expecting to see any, there are only a handfull of birds flying in each day at this time of year, but we thought we might as well go and eat our lunch out there and enjoy the view.

And then this happened.

A full grown Royal Albatross, with a 3.3 metre wingspan, flew right over our heads, and then back over, and over. I had really really hoped to see an adult bird, I’ve been wanting to see an albatross for a very long time. There’s something about their huge wingspan and long journeys that I find fascinating. They’re from another world, in a way.

And there one was, up close, pretty much in the carpark.

We thoroughly enjoyed the tour, and were glad to contribute towards the work they’re doing at the Royal albatross centre. But, if you want to see an albatross, and you can’t manage $50 for a tour, you can always just hang out in the carpark.

You might just be lucky!

3 thoughts on “Albatross spotting on the Otago Peninsular

    1. I know, the mind boggles. I think that was one of the most interesting things about spending so long at sea, although it doesn’t seem very long compared to these guys, or to sail voyages. It’s like you suddenly see there’s this whole great big world out there, that you’ve never noticed before. I always thought of the beach when I thought of the sea before, but that’s not the sea. You begin to really grasp what proportion of the planet is ocean I suppose.

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