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Visitors offer Dunedin’s little blue penguins a helping hand

Conservation and tourism are working hand in hand to protect the korora little blue penguins on the Otago Peninsula in southern New Zealand.

Tiny, cute and endangered, Dunedin’s little blue penguins are the precious stars of Tautoko Kaitiaki, an exclusive new hands-on conservation experience.

Blue Penguins Pukekura, a penguin conservation project at Takiharuru-Pilots Beach on the Otago Peninsula, has launched an exclusive new experience in which visitors can become conservation workers caring for their feathered charges.

Under Tautoko Kaitiaki, which means ‘supporting and caring’, small groups of up to four visitors will team up with a penguin scientist to help care for the little blues and their environment.

People are always curious to find out what goes on behind the scenes and this world-first experience has been designed to provide a unique opportunity to share in and understand the work with the little blue penguins, according to Otago Peninsula Trust ecotourism manager Hoani Langsbury.

Depending on the time of year, visitors could find themselves helping check a bird’s RFID (radio frequency identification) transponder, assisting with weighing and microchipping an unmarked bird. There will be other opportunities for hands-on habitat work in the regenerating reserve which could involve planting new trees and grasses, protecting vegetation from rabbits, nest box repairs and beach clean ups.

“This area is so precious to our whānau (family) and through sharing this experience we hope to inspire many more people to care for te taiao (our environment). Numbers are limited to four people per day to ensure minimal disturbance to the penguins,” Hoani said.

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Mana whenua (local Māori people) consider kororā or little blue penguins to be a taonga (treasured) species. Since 2012, they have been involved in a successful guardianship and tourism partnership that has seen the penguin population increase exponentially to approximately 200 breeding pairs within the reserve. The summer of 2018/19 saw 270 chicks successfully fledged.

Key factors in keeping the penguins safe to breed include managing public access, protection from predators (rats, feral cats, stoats and dogs), and provision of native trees and shrubs for shelter and nesting boxes where they can safely incubate their eggs and raise their chicks.

The Otago Peninsula Trust, which is behind this eco-tourism project, has spent more than 50 years working to preserve and enhance the rich local biodiversity of the area that is often referred to as ‘the seabird capital of the world’. It is also home to a royal albatross colony (the world’s only mainland breeding colony) and nine types of nesting birds, with another 20 species regularly spotted, and a seal colony.

Each year the Trust hosts more than 200,000 visitors to its award-winning visitor experiences which include the Royal Albatross Centre and Blue Penguins Pukekura. The tourism operations generate revenue to help sustain the conservation work which, in turn, has contributed to Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula becoming the host city for the 10th International Penguin Conference - a global gathering of penguin scientists to be held in August 2019.

Visitors can book the new experience through the Royal Albatross Centre.

About Korora / Little Blue Penguin

The little blue penguin is exactly as it name suggests, little. The smallest penguin species at 35cm (13 inches) the korora weighs around 1kg (2 pounds) and is common in New Zealand coastal waters. Blue Penguins Pukekura on the Otago Peninsula or the Blue Penguin Colony in Oamaru, on the South Island’s east coast, are the best places to watch these little guys making their nightly pilgrimage from the sea and into their nests.

• Blue penguins are the world’s smallest penguins (35-43cm tall).

• Blue penguins travel 15–75 km at sea each day, and only come ashore under cover of darkness.

• Chicks often return to where they were raised and never move away.

• Related to the blue penguin, the Canterbury white flippered penguin lives around Banks Peninsula, near Christchurch.

• New Zealand is one of the few accessible lands with penguin populations.

• There are 18 different penguin species with seven found in New Zealand.

Travel Tips

Air New Zealand has daily flights to Dunedin. The Royal Albatross Centre, a 45-minute drive to Taiaroa Head, offers 60 and 90-minute tours. A viewing platform and boardwalk at Pilots Beach provides the most natural way to view the shy but noisy little penguins without disturbing them. A university town with rich Scottish heritage, Dunedin is known for its impressive historic architecture and buzzy nightlife.

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