Wildlife Encounter Aboard the Monarch

The waters of Dunedin are rich with marine life and some of the world’s largest and rarest seabirds thanks to the cold and rough southern waters. Today, we are hitting the water to watch sea lions, seals, albatross and so much more in their natural habitat!

Pulling up at the harbourside in Dunedin, we check in for the Monarch Wildlife Cruise. As the skipper, Buddy, readies the grand M.V. Monarch, we stand at the wharf marvelling at it’s beautiful design with a raised observation area at the front and even an albatross pictured on the floor. This truly is a wildlife-watching vessel.

We are joined by three other people for the trip down the harbour and a wildlife-spotter on deck, Leena, until we pick up some more people along the Otago Peninsula later on.

Spotted: a real life log

We have barely pulled out from the wharf when Buddy notices something floating in the water. Is it a seal? Is it a rare penguin? A baby whale?! Nope, it’s just a piece of floating wood, which Leena fishes out of the water with a net so it doesn’t damage any small fishing boats.

Waders and shags

After the ocean cleanup, we continue down the harbour in a body of water between the city and suburbs of Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula. Buddy is on the mic for the entire tour, sharing his huge wealth of knowledge on the area, both about the history of Dunedin and of course, all the wildlife we see today. We find out that it’s even a marvel that we are able to cruise down the harbour today, which is only about two metres deep. We see old man made walls revealed at the current low tide from early settlers’ attempts to make the channel deeper, but instead, accumulating more sand behind the wall enjoyed by the wading birds and seabirds, particularly cormorants or “shags” as they are known in New Zealand.

Sunny sightseeing on our way down the harbour Sunny sightseeing on our way down the harbour
A shag makes use of the channel markers along harbour A shag makes use of the channel markers along harbour
The rugged Taiaroa Head is home to the world's only mainland albatross colony The rugged Taiaroa Head is home to the world's only mainland albatross colony
A smooth and slippery sea lion A smooth and slippery sea lion

A city tour and wildlife cruise rolled into one

Buddy points out heaps of noteworthy areas and buildings of Dunedin along the shore, even his mum’s house, whey! We never expected to get such a thorough city tour included with our cruise! But hell, it is definitely enjoyed as we sit on the front deck, binoculars to our faces and the early morning sun rays warming up our skin. What’s more, the M.V. Monarch smoothly glides along the still waters of the harbour, not too fast to blow us away with the wind. They can keep their complimentary windproof jackets in the lockers as far as we are concerned.

Oystercatchers, gulls and… are those petrels?

We get some complimentary hot drinks just before hitting the pick-up point along the Otago Peninsula. As more tour-goers get on board, a white-faced heron glides right in front of the boat. We can also see a black swan flap its wings vigorously to keep its huge body in the air. Variable and pied oystercatchers can be seen as always probing the sandy shores with their long orange beaks in their breeding pairs. Of course, there are the two types of gulls, the boystrous red billed gulls (the small ones) and the more calm and collective black backed gull (the huge ones). Something we are not expecting to see this far in the harbour is a group of petrels bobbing up and down in the water – or so we are told we are not supposed to see them by Buddy. Spoiler alert! We are meant to see these guys off shore!

Sea lion show

Even just making our way out of the harbour makes it very clear that we are about to see a hell of a lot more wildlife. Under a jetty in the distance, Robin spots a sea lion poking its head out of the water, toying with the idea of heading on land. We slowly make our way closer to see the rare New Zealand sea lion or “Hooker sea lion”. It relaxes half in the water, half out, until another bull approaches it. Usually, these beasts like to fight, but they appear to interact peacefully in the water. We get plenty of time to watch these blubbery creatures behave until we need to press on to see more of the peninsula coastlines super stars.

A huge shag colony

As we get closer to Taiaroa Head, the end of the peninsula famous for its abundance of wildlife, we spot a huge gathering of black dots on the cliff-side. A huge colony of shags have created small ledges on the cliff to make their own nests. Buddy points out shags feeding their chicks by regurgitating seafood into their mouth… Yum! Despite seeing shags a fair few times around New Zealand, from Abel Tasman to Auckland, these shags are specifically the Otago shag, only seen in this region!

sun-kissed seals

The M.V. Monarch moves around Taiaroa Head for a better look at the marine mammals on the rocks. Blended into the rocks, they are quite hard to spot unless they move their head to check us out… It’s the New Zealand fur seal! They too are basking in the sunlight.

Although seals and humans love a bit of calm wind and sunlight to bathe in, this is not boding well for spotting royal albatross that usually circle around Taiaroa Head. But all hope is not lost! We are is a freakin’ boat! Let’s go find some offshore seabirds… Seabirds only found in the rough and cold waters of the “Roaring Forties”.

A little flock of northern cape petrels A little flock of northern cape petrels
See any albatross, Robin? See any albatross, Robin?
A super shag pattern! A super shag pattern!

Albatross encounter

We bob along in the open waters leaving the calmness of the harbour behind us. Laura stands at the ready with the tripod and camera, hilariously stumbling with her tripod having no steady effect. Despite being on heaps of boats in New Zealand so far, she is hopeless at keeping stable on these things. Meanwhile, Robin is right in his element.

Judged by seabirds

Seemingly, we are not seeing any birds on the waters… Doubts start to cross our mind. Maybe it is too calm for albatross. But we should never lose hope! First, we see a flock of northern cape petrels waiting in the water for our boat to make them fly away into the distance. Next, we are followed by a couple of different species of albatross, probably thinking we are a fishing boat. When they realise we’re just a bunch of crazy tourists they land on the water and just sit watching us… Judging us, we’d say, according to the stern expression on their faces.

We don’t see the world’s largest albatross until we are heading back to the Otago Peninsula. There’s no mistaking it is the royal albatross as the glider-plane-like bird flies past our boat not having to beat its wings once! No wander these guys can travel more than four million kilometres during its life!

Back in the harbour, we check up on the sea lion which is now doing what sea lions do best: sleeping with a blanket of sand over its body.

Monarch bus banter

We are dropped off at the Wellers Rock along the Otago Peninsula for Alana, the bus driver, to drive us back into the city having a bit of a natter about life and trying to get people to live with her. (Ok, its not as crazy as it sounds – it’s just a bit of Monarch bus banter).

From bus banter to camper banter, we now have the mission of finding parking outside of the Hogwartz. Yes, there is a backpackers with a Harry Potter theme here in Dunedin! How awesome is that?!  We’re pleased we are not sleeping in cupboard under the stairs though.

Join us tomorrow where we are checking out the Otago Museum!

Laura and Robin

Watching the huge shag colony aboard the Monarch
Watching the huge shag colony aboard the Monarch Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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