Bit of a slow start this morning but we did manage to book the next four days of accommodation and activities, jam-packed of course. With that sorted, we headed for the Otago Museum. First up we saw some of Edmund Hillary's personal possessions, including his ice axe, camera and gloves. After that we probably should've been in the local history section but inevitably found ourselves drawn to the natural history galleries. We checked out the living rainforest which was full of butterflies, the plesiosaur fossil which was discovered nearby, and the moa skeletons.
Upstairs we visited the Animal Attic, where the display methods are as much a part of the exhibit as the specimens themselves. It is the original upper floor of the museum, dating back to 1877, so it's like experiencing a museum as people would've in the Victorian era. Very cool.
For the afternoon we headed out along the narrow, winding road that snakes its way along the coast of the Otago Peninsula, all the way to Taiaroa Head where the world’s only mainland colony of albatross is found. In the 1920's they numbered just 7, (the main population of Northern Royal Albatross are found 1000 kilometres offshore on the Chatham Islands) but since then the population has grown to about 250. A pair of albatross raise one chick every two years and they don't begin breeding until the age of 8 or 9. They are monogamous, and spend alternate years raising a chick together or circumnavigating the globe solo. When raising their chick they supply it with about 2kg of seafood each day until it weighs about 12kg and begins to grow its adult plumage. Then they gradually start to feed it less, effectively putting it on a diet until it trims down to 8 or 9 kg which is light enough to fly. During this time they land away from the chick and make it come to them for its food, forcing it to exercise and build muscle. After about a year they pretty much stop feeding it until it realises it's going to starve if it doesn't feed itself. So it takes to the air and leaves, pure instinct driving it to hunt. Meanwhile the parents return and find it gone so they take a yearlong break and meet up the following year to breed again. The chicks don't land again for 4 years, feeding and sleeping at sea. When they do eventually find their way back they crash land, because they have never landed before and because their leg muscles are weak from 4 years without use. They lay in their landing spot for up to 3 days recovering and then these 'teenage' birds hang out together partying and lapping the headland in short flights. They do this each year for 4 or 5 years until they find a mate and have babies of their own. Albatross live for about forty years, the oldest female at Taiaroa was at least 51 (there is a photo of her taken in 1938 and the last photo of her was taken in 1989).
We learned all this during a tour which took us up to the observatory where we saw 3 nesting albatross (eggs are incubated by both parents for 79 days and begin hatching in late January). We also saw a couple of landings, which must've been older birds as they were quite smooth.
After the tour we headed out to the viewing platform and watched the albatross flying by. Did I mention they have a 3 metre wingspan? Pretty impressive.
Next we headed over to the southern side of the peninsula to Allans Beach. It is a sandy beach, and unlike the rocky habitat preferred by the New Zealand Fur Seal which we have seen in a few places, it is the habitat of New Zealand Sea Lion. We visited the beach hoping to see one and add them to our mammal life lists.
I wasn't sure what our chances were (this wasn't my first visit here) but sure enough, we stepped out onto the beach and there one was. The sea lions are known to be much wilder and aggressive than the fur seals so we kept our distance, and though it appeared to be sleeping, we were mindful not to put ourselves between it and the water.