Not so happy feet?
Guest blogger – Photographer, Tom Marshall
A comment my colleague and I often get as New Zealand photographers is ‘you must have had a wonderful time in Antarctica’. As much as I’d love to say ‘yes, it was awesome, but a bit chilly’, the truth is we’ve never set foot south of Dunedin and people are usually looking at our pictures of Fiordland Crested or Yellow-eyed Penguins.
Now I love ‘Happy Feet’ and ‘March of the Penguins’ with their iceberg-strewn backdrops as much as the next person, but it’s surprising how few people realize that we have some of the most amazing – and rarest penguins on the planet are right on our doorstep.
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said recently of a new tourism drive ‘I doubt tourists will want to come to the South Island just to see a penguin’ – but why not? From recollection they were fairly thin on the ground north of the equator last time I was there, and with a million birdwatchers in the UK alone, I’m sure there’s plenty of people who’d willingly put up with the West Coast’s finest sandflies for a glimpse of a Fiordland Crested Penguin in his dapper dinner jacket.
Indeed, if current research is to be believed we should be making the most of these opportunities while we still have them, with the Eastern Rockhopper Penguin of Campbell Island declining by a staggering 94% percent since the 1940s.
Our mainland penguins are not faring much better, with factors such as habitat loss, introduced pests and un-managed human disturbance – especially dogs, all affecting yellow-eyed, Fiordland and little blue penguin populations. Although typically shy species, a number of conservation groups and committed individuals are giving people the chance to see these iconic birds, whilst allowing the penguins to get on with life’s other challenges like avoiding sea-lions and rock climbing.
We can certainly help by not disturbing the penguins as they go about their daily lives, but bigger factors such as climate change and the potential effects on sea-surface temperature and therefore the availability of prey, is something we all have to consider as it begins to affect seabirds across the world from New Zealand to tiny Scottish Islands.
So next time a friend is showing you the brochure for the latest luxury Antarctic expedition, why not suggest a few days visiting New Zealand’s own cast of ‘Happy Feet’, and take the chance to see these superb birds in our own backyard – and without the extra thermals.
Images by Andrew Walmsley – www.wildfocus.org