The Penguins we have here at Pohatu near Akaroa are very special, they are called White-flippered penguins, a variant of Little penguin. They have a white leading edge and trailing edge on their flippers which they are named for and are slightly taller than their cousin the Little Blue penguin, which is found in other parts of New Zealand and Australia.
White-flippered penguins are only found in the Canterbury region of New Zealand and are different in their colouration, and also behaviour, in comparison to other variants of Little penguins.
Over time they have adapted to Canterbury’s coastal waters, the glacial silt which comes down from the southern Alps in our rivers ends up in the ocean around Banks peninsula and makes our water a turquoise blue colour. Penguins over time adapted a lighter coloration to match these unique waters.
White-flippered penguins are a beautiful turquoise blue colour when they first fledge at about 7 to 8 weeks old, they have totally lost their baby fluff and have their new waterproof feathers and are ready to go to sea for the first time.
Young ones spend most of their time in or on the water they don’t necessarily need to come ashore. Predators like birds of prey flying over the water find it harder to see them due to their colouration.
Our penguins on average mostly dive to depths of 6 meters hunting small fish where the water is the turquoise blue colour.
Bigger penguin species like our Yellow eyed penguins can dive down 40 to 120 meters, it is very dark down there and likely to be a contributing factor for their black coats.
Underneath all penguin species are white and this camouflage is to stop predators like sharks or seals from seeing them easily as well. When you look up from down in the ocean you see mostly white colour against the sky and when you look down in the deep ocean it looks black.
When Little penguins are 2 to 3 years old, they think about starting a family. They have to find a nice place to live, naturally they like to live in a colony so they have neighbours they can walk home with after dark. Safety in numbers, and only coming ashore in the hours of darkness is how they have adapted to avoid predator birds.
They dig holes in the ground like a rabbit burrow, somewhere safe away from birds of prey or if they are feeling lazy, they steal burrows from rabbits, or other penguins, even their own parents burrows.
Little penguins seem to have a built-in memory of where they were raised and will always return to within a few meters of that area. Once they have found a good spot, they will always try to remain there for the rest of their life, unless they get kicked out by another penguin family.
Banks Peninsula is made up of old extinct volcanoes, all around us are beautiful harbours, bays and steep rolling hills. Little penguins here can walk up to 850 meters inland and 200-meters altitude from sea level. In the past before human arrival they nested under a thick canopy of forest and dug burrows under tree roots or rocks.
Male penguins attract a girlfriend by providing a nice place to live, burrows can take up to 3 years of digging in the hard pact clay found around Banks peninsula. Once dug/or stolen, he builds a nest inside the burrow, if he can impress her, she will give him a chance. These penguins are just like people, some will stay together for life, and some might get a divorce, it all depends how well they work as a team when raising their young.
As White-flippered penguins get older and start raising a family their feathers change to a light blue grey colour which blends in with banks peninsulas coastal rocks extremely well. They usually come up on the same rocks every night to preen just before climbing the hills to get home. The rocks become covered in penguin poop over the breeding season, which also aids with camouflage, as their white underbelly makes them invisible from a distance. It becomes very hard to spot penguins on the rocks if they are not moving. If birds of prey happen to fly over, they freeze not moving or they jump straight back into the water where they can speed away from harm and join up with the penguin rafts on the water.
At sea, they like to raft up in the water bobbing around in a group (safety in numbers). Someone in the group can always alert the others about predators, they also like to take a little break just before they make their way up home to feed their chicks. They wait until it gets dark and for all signs of birds of prey to be gone before climbing up the hills to get home.
White-flippered penguins usually have 2 chicks and raise them until they are on average 7 to 8 weeks old , that's when the chicks are usually ready to fledge/take off to sea for the first time.
New Zealand was a land of birds, those penguins like other birds of New Zealand adapted to have only one clutch of 2 eggs per year, Little blue penguins have 2 clutches per year on average.
White-flippered penguins living in New Zealand were without land predators for a long time, so could afford to be less productive having chicks. Once safe and sound in the burrow the chicks were safe from harm. Little Blue penguins living in Australia had to worry about other things like snakes, lizards and land mammals which could take their eggs, so they double clutched every year raising 2 lots of chicks, hopefully mitigating these factors and facilitate species survival .
In the breeding season adult White-flippered penguins spend most of their day hunting small fish for their chicks and bringing the food back every night if they can. They carry it in their stomach and regurgitate up a fishy soupy mixture mixed with a natural protein for their chicks. Sounds gross but if all goes well two adult penguins can raise their two chicks to 8 weeks old and they will be the same size as mum and dad.
Once adults have raised the chicks and they have gone to sea they start to think about themselves for once, they also head off to sea and stay out there. Little penguins on average spend 80% of their life in or on the water, only coming ashore for the breeding season, to rest on occasion, and to molt.
Their feathers get very worn out during the breeding season and once a year they need to replace the old worn feathers and have beautiful new blue coat again.
They spend weeks and weeks out in the ocean trying to put on as much weight as possible. Their body tells them it’s time to molt, lose all the old feathers, so they come back home to their burrows and hunker down for almost 2 weeks without food and water, using up their fat reserves to get through. While molting they can’t go in the water as they get water logged with all the old feathers falling out and not being waterproof any longer, they don’t have as much insulation either.
They sit around waiting and pulling out old feathers, sometimes they molt together as a couple or sometimes alone.
Some smart penguins like to just molt on the rocks where they can hide in cracks in the day time or rely on their amazing camouflage and at night go down to the waters edge for a drink.
When molting has finished the adult penguins now have a beautiful new blue coat, ready for life at sea until the next breeding season.
Banks peninsula’s White-flippered penguins start the breeding season with nest building in August. They have most of the chicks by October/ November, and chicks start to fledge during December/ January. Adults start to leave as well in December and January to fatten up for the molt. Mid-January to mid-February is molting time and then everyone takes off to sea for a long time. They return for a big penguin party most years by mid-April and come and go regularly in the winter months to rest in the burrows, or check it out making sure their home still theirs for the next breeding season.
For a long time they were considered a sub-species of the Little blue penguin, in recent years they are now called a variant, kind of like cousin.
The Pohatu penguin colony near Akaroa mostly consists of White-flippered penguins but over the years Little blue penguins have come into the colony and are now interbreeding.
The hybrid of the two is usually a darker blue typical of Little blues but having the white leading and trailing edge on the flippers. Very distinctive White-flippered penguins have a white patch in the middle of the flipper attach to the trailing edge.
One of our frequently monitored nesting boxes F34 has a mixed couple, which is rather interesting as they have been together for years now. She is a Little blue and he is a White-flippered penguin. She double clutches some years and on the second clutch of eggs he does not help her, he takes off to sea to begin his molt.
Often in this situation she is trying to incubate eggs on her own and luckily due to warm summer weather she has managed to hatch chicks, she tries to raise them on her own.
She returns every second day like she would do with a partner. Later on the male will come back to molt sitting next to his chicks which he unfortunately can’t feed. In this situation we do give a helping hand supplement feeding when she’s away, and if the male comes back to molt, we take the chicks into the rehab garden to build them up to a good weight so they are ready to go to sea.
There are a few more Little blues and White-flippered penguin couples but they don’t seem to double clutch like nesting box F34, possibly because F34 is a female Little blue and the other couples might be male Little blues with female White-flippered, it’s hard to tell.
White-flippered penguins are still considered to be an endangered species. Their strong holds are Motunau Island off the coast of Canterbury and Pohatu bay on Banks peninsula, both of which have the largest colonies. They are found spread out in smaller colonies all around Banks peninsula however, and are now growing in some areas which are part of the Wildside conservation project.
Motunau Island has a colony of 2500 pairs and many other endangered species living there, from sea birds to native plants. The island is restricted to only researchers with a special Department of Conservation permit to enter, as the habitat is very sensitive with penguins’ burrows honey combing the whole tiny island. The island is also predator free due to intensive conservation work.
Pohatu is a small south-eastern bay of Banks peninsula and is privately owned where the land owners started penguin conservation 40 years ago. The main goal being to keep the area predator free and provide nesting opportunities for a stable breeding colony. Later branching out into penguin rehabilitation, forest restoration and penguin tours under Pohatu penguins.
Pohatu has 1,250 breeding pairs and is the largest White flippered penguin colony found on mainland New Zealand. Due to being on the mainland keeping the predators out is the hardest part of the work, but the Pohatu colony keeps growing, and the conservation effort has inspired the amazing Wildside project.
People are also restricted here as the colony is nesting on private property. Tourism to see penguins is guided in small groups, keeping human impact on penguins minimal and also funding the Pohatu conservation project.