When Marvin first arrived on the doorstep of intensive care nurses Thomas Stracke and Kristina Schutt, he was in a bad way. Starving and severely dehydrated, he couldn’t walk. One of his feet had been torn up. His eyes, the pale blue of glacial ice, were dark and squinted shut.
But Stracke and Schutt knew exactly how to help the little blue penguin. They put him in the shade to rest, with a towel in case he got cold, and fed him an electrolyte drink, followed by fish smoothies. They tended to his damaged foot – it looked as though a seal had grabbed it and shaken him back and forth – and as he regained his strength, he began to eat whole anchovies. Pretty soon, Marvin started physiotherapy, running up and down the lawn and swimming in a paddling pool. He had a severe limp from his injured foot, so Stracke and Schutt knew he would probably never go back to sea.
But Marvin had other ideas. He started to escape. He’d climb up the side of his enclosure, push open the lid and wriggle out. Once, Schutt found him behind their vegetable patch, making a bid for freedom. They began to wonder: was he wily and capable enough to return to the great outdoors? When rehabilitated penguins are set free, they’re usually hesitant. Marvin, however, took a few wobbly steps on the sand, looked over his shoulder to see if anyone was pursuing him and then ran for the waves, his flippers outstretched like a small child pretending to fly. Then he was gone.
“I’m not sad about it,” Schutt says, sitting in their wood-panelled living room. The back lawn is empty – they have no penguin patients today. Her blonde hair is turning silver around the edges, like frost, and her face has creased along the lines of smile after smile. “It’s good to see they can have their penguin life. They’re not made to be in a garden or in an enclosure. They have to be in the sea.”
Stracke and Schutt have a peaceful demeanour about them, as though nothing can possibly go wrong. It’s a calmness about their eyes, a measured quality in the way they speak, a sense of patience. People bring sick and injured penguins to their Christchurch home from all around the surrounding Canterbury region, and last summer was a particularly bad one. A marine heatwave meant little blue penguins weren’t able to find food, and many washed up on beaches, starving. Yellow-eyed penguin chicks, meanwhile, overheated, and it was hard to bring them back from the brink. “It was horrific,” Stracke says. “We had 14 penguins at any time, and not for a couple of weeks – they were long-stayers.”
To care for their brood, Schutt and Stracke arranged to work opposite shifts at the intensive care unit so that one of them was always home. To keep the penguins cool, they put blocks of ice in the garden, with fans to blow the air across them.
But how do they know that it’s time for a penguin to leave? “The weight is right,” says Schutt, “and then they really don’t like you at all anymore. They’re not even happy to get food. I think they just want to get away – like Marvin. He tried to escape as much as he could.”
Christchurch is at the centre of a number of the country’s penguin territories. It’s near the southern end of the range of little blues, and the northernmost of the critically endangered yellow-eyed penguins, which travel as far as New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands. It’s is also the only place in the world that is home to white-flippered penguins, a variant of the little blue.
White-flippered penguins, it turns out, are the lifelong obsession of Stracke and Schutt’s friend, ornithologist Chris Challies, who lives just around the corner from them. He has been voluntarily watching over a colony of penguins since 1976. No penguin has arrived, nested, laid an egg or hatched at Harris Bay on Banks Peninsula without it being recorded by Challies.
Banks Peninsula extends into the ocean south of Christchurch, its steep hills the folds of an eroded volcano, now the velvet green of farmland. Its heart is a drowned volcanic crater, connected by a shallow channel to the sea; its edges, carved by lava channels, are frayed with bay after bay. Tiny towns are hidden behind the shoulders of hills, their names chronicling the peninsula’s history: Duvauchelle from the French settlers, Barrys Bay from the British, Akaroa, the largest town, named by the indigenous Maori.
In spring, the hilltops are dusted gold with blooming gorse, and the sea mist often draws over the land, low milky clouds pooling in the valleys. Its winding roads reveal and conceal vistas – scattered cottages, lambs tucked beneath their mothers, an aqua bay far below, its surface smooth as the skin of a drum. Here, life travels at a slower speed. It’s less than an hour’s drive from Christchurch, but it feels like a completely different place – or time.
Challies discovered the Harris Bay colony in the early 1970s when, according to him, “nobody else was looking” and has visited around 40 times a year ever since. Now in his late 70s, Challies has an immense amount of information about how the colony has changed over time and speaks with firm authority. When I meet him, his forearms are covered with marks from his visit five days earlier, during which he lifted the penguins out of their nesting boxes to check the numbers of eggs they had laid. “When they bite, they bite,” he laughs.
Recently, an analysis of the data on the colony (which he’s collected since 1976) showed that the penguins’ breeding time had gradually shifted – on average, they lay eggs 12 days earlier than they did in 1990. It’s likely due to climate change, he says, as well as food becoming available earlier – warmer sea-surface temperatures mean some of the fish species they eat turn up at different times of year, or sometimes not at all.
Challies has also watched the population recover from the severe blow it was dealt in the 1980s, when penguins were hunted by land-based predators. While his colony, isolated and protected, remained stable, penguin numbers dropped by as much as 80% in other parts of Banks Peninsula – and they were saved from being wiped out largely through the efforts of two local farmers, Francis and Shireen Helps.
The Helps are fourth-generation Banks Peninsula farmers who live in a mustard-coloured villa beside the sea at Flea Bay, surrounded by arum lilies, pine trees, grazing sheep and hundreds of little wooden boxes, scattered as far as the eye can see, carefully numbered. The latter are penguin nests – an attempt to prevent them making their home in the house, or the garage, or the woolshed. “They’re very noisy. They’re a bit like donkey with sore throats,” says Shireen, her face crinkling with laughter. “If you let them get under your house – well, that’s what you’ve got to try to go to sleep by.”
When Francis and Shireen were growing up, each of the over 50 bays in Banks Peninsula had its own penguin colony. There have always been penguins at Flea Bay, but in the early 1970s, the couple noticed that there were fewer and fewer of them around. “When we went to visit some of our old haunts in other bays, we found the penguins were all gone,” says Shireen. “And that’s when we started looking around our own backyard.”
They frequently came across dead penguins on land, so they set traps for ferrets and stoats. There are now 225 traps protecting the bay. Francis also noticed the penguins were spending time squabbling over nesting spots rather than settling down to lay eggs, so he began building what he jokingly calls “state houses” to forestall arguments. Shireen kept an eye out for sick and injured chicks, and cared for them at home.
Looking after penguins became a family affair – Shireen’s niece, Averil Parthonnaud, has been helping out since she was young. “I grew up following my auntie around looking after penguins – I was obsessed,” says Parthonnaud. “There were penguins always running around the kitchen floor, and that was so normal. You used to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and there were a group of penguins behind you when you were sitting on the toilet.”
Parthonnaud, now in her 30s, is forthright and open, quick to joke, with the confidence of being on the land she knows so well. These days, she leads penguin tours, the profits of which support the family’s conservation work, meaning they require no government funding.
Their efforts worked. When the government’s Department of Conservation conducted a penguin survey in 2000, 15 years after the Helps became involved with conservation, the officials were gobsmacked to discover 717 pairs of penguins at Flea Bay. They’d thought mainland colonies were doomed. Today, there are 1,260 breeding pairs littered throughout Flea Bay – which is now the country’s largest mainland colony.
Recently, the Helps have planted trees on the hillsides in an attempt to shade the handful of yellow-eyed penguins which nest among the white-flippered ones – they’re more susceptible to heat, and the last couple of summers have been scorching. Every summer, about 100 white-flippered nests in Flea Bay are monitored to check how the chicks and parents are doing.
When visiting one with Parthonnaud, I peer over her shoulder as she lifts the wooden lid of a box for a quick look. An adult is within, its feathers the shimmery silver of fish scales, its two chicks little balls of grey fluff that tussle with each other sleepily. “They’re like energy-filled little kids,” Parthonnaud says appreciatively. Their other parent is out fishing and will return at nightfall: “Half the population is at sea and half is at home with their kids.”
From our spot on the hillside, we use a telescope to look into the bay, and Parthonnaud shows me flocks of penguins resting on the surface. Flea Bay may be inauspiciously named, but its waters are the turquoise of a tropical island, and it is home to more than penguins – we’ve also seen terns, petrels, geckos and giant insects called weta. On the rocks below us, three New Zealand fur seals are sunning themselves, flippers outstretched as though they dozed off while making snow angels.
After nightfall, the little penguins on the water will come ashore in groups, waddling from the waves to return to their nests and feed their chicks. Some will walk all the way to the ridgeline above us, more than a kilometre uphill, through long grass and right over the top of any sleeping sheep that are in the way. Others nest right on the hillside by the water – prime real estate with a sea view. They’ll call and answer each other as they find their way home, just as it’s always been.
Seeking them out: How to get a glimpse of the area’s penguins
Francis and Shireen Helps’ tour company, Pohatu Penguins, offers daytime and evening land-based excursions, and sea kayaking tours in Flea Bay.
The best time to see penguins is from late August to late December, when they’re on land nesting. Later in the summer, says Averil Parthonnaud, the penguins go to sea to fatten up, and shed and replace their entire coat of feathers.
There are windows of opportunity to see penguins between mid-April and August, so it’s worth calling Pohatu Penguins. Little blue penguins can also be visited year-round at the International Antarctic Centre, which is located near Christchurch Airport.
Yellow-eyed penguins breed at Bushy Beach, Oamaru, where there is a public hide, allowing people to view the penguins without disturbing them.
Singapore Airlines flies to Christchurch daily. To book a flight, visit singaporeairlines.com