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SOUTH ISLAND
whale tail

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely -- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world...This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me."
Herman Melville, opening chapter in Moby Dick.

Scenes From National Geographic

In South Island, the monickers of towns were pleasant to roll off the tongue: Te Anau, Wa-na-ka, O-ta-go , Oa-ma-ru, A-ka-roa, Kai-kou-ra. At every stop, even the tiniest of towns, there was always something special to do. We chose to avoid staying at the bigger cities like Christchurch and Dunedin, opting instead to go where most New Zealanders go for their holidays.

Access to animals in their natural habitats was priority. We struck out for places where we could see whales, dolphins, seals and penguins -- none of which we could find back home.

In Kaikoura, on a huge speedboat, complete with vomit bags, we chased sperm whales. These 50-foot giants of the sea apparently reside on the coastline all year round because of abundant food and few or no natural enemies.

Our guide used an hydrophone, an odd, conventional-looking device that seemed like a long saxophone, to listen for whales. He stuck one end into the water and listened on a pair of headphones on the other. Then we were off. We were strapped in tight with life-jackets which the kids found uncomfortable. Julian made hand puppets out the barf bags and that kept them busy.

The rides were fast and bumpy. Once we got to a whale, we would all troop outside armed with binoculars and cameras and videocams and "Oooh" and "Aaah" while we snapped away. In all we spotted three whales at three different spots!

Each whale would hang out on the surface for only a few minutes. We could just see their shiny backs and the exploding water and air as they expunged their blowholes. Then, before you know it, they would arch their backs and go down, lobbing their tail flukes in the air, to a barrage of camera-snapping. We were told they could disappear underwater for as much as 90 minutes, so we didn't hang around before we trooped back inside the boat to go chase another.

But the first whale was unusual. Just when we were all inside again, he resurfaced, as if to say, "Nyah, nyah, I fooled ya". The boat spun around and we all trooped out again for more camera-snapping.

Why Penguins Divorce

In complete contrast, in Oamaru, another tiny town on the South Island's east coast, we had to sit and wait for the penguins to show up.

Oamaru is home to the blue penguin, the smallest of the world's 17 species of penguin. Over 100 pairs are breeding along an old harbour. The adults swim out to sea to forage all day and return at precisely 9pm every night.

We perched on a schoolyard-sized, wooden grandstand, under dim floodlights, as the spotters awaited their arrival. They were later than usual and the seas were battering against the rocky beach. As the night grew chillier, the spotters got excited as 50 or so pairs of tiny fins were seen bobbing on the horizon. The penguins nonchalantly hopped up the rocky path and then stood in the glare of the lights to dry off, as if on parade, right in front of us.

Penguin Crossing

A chorus of squealing baby penguins on the hillsides could be heard. Then as if on cue, as the squealing got louder, the returning penguins, bellies laden with food, each waddled off to their individual burrows. Later another group of about 50 more penguins showed up.

By then we had decided to drive back, but we were surprised to spot others by the roadside away from the fenced areas, and quickly turned off our headlights to avoid frightening the daylights out of them. The signboard for crossing penguins was not just for novelty after all!

At the Otago Peninsula, off Dunedin, we stayed at Penguin Place, a sheep farm that was converted into a reserve for yellow-eyed penguins, one of the rarest penguins in the world.

A mini-bus took about 15 of us uphill to the reserve where a series of tunnels and hides have been built to observe over 30 pairs of breeding penguins. We were told the pairs are faithful to each other when breeding is successful, but were likely to "divorce" if breeding fails.

Penguin and Babies

In the glare of the sun, we spotted a mother feeding her pair of brown babies, and moved from hide to hide observing others in their built-up nest boxes. On the beach, we spotted a lone juvenile wandering around aimlessly. Further away, a sea lion showed up. The guide made us all excited at first by this, saying it was rare for sea lions to show up there, and then made us all fearful, for the poor penguin when he told us sea lions were known to chomp on a penguin or two for breakfast. We all rooted for the penguin, quite loudly, to "stay away, stay away" from the waters, and when the sea lion finally disappeared from view, we breathed a collective sigh of relief.

At Otago, we missed seeing the albatross colony, but followed the road uphill and were surprised to find another tourist attraction called Nature's Wonders.

Maria, a chatty mother of five, took us on an argo, one of those eight-wheeled all-terrain crafts, through the middle of a sheep farm. We trudged up the hillsides, with Maria shooing sheep away, and saw cormorants nesting on the hillsides, seals sleeping on the rocks, and, in the distance, more penguins. It was Maria's enthusiastic banter that made the ride all the more memorable and she rounded off the trip with a grand view of the sunset from atop a hill.

At Akaroa, we went cruising for Hector's Dolphins, one of the the world's smallest and rarest dolphins. The playful dolphins darted real close and were almost impossible to capture on film as they whizzed under the boat. We were running at every end of the boat trying to get a close up view.

One of the best parts of our trip in the south was spotting seals alongside the rocky shoreline outside Kaikoura, on the road back north. This time there were no signboards, and we seemed to have stumbled upon the seals by sheer chance.

We made a U-turn and just sat by the roadside watching five of these animals flopping around on the rocks. The seals were just a few meters away, the closest we had gotten to the animals ever, and they seemed groggy as if they had too much too drink the night before and missed the morning call to go out to sea.

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