Since 1989 when we opened Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki each year at the beginning of July we have welcomed Tawaki/Fiordland Crested Penguins returning to the Lake Moeraki coastal forests to start their 5 month breeding season. They have swum about 2,000 kilometres from their Sub-Antarctic Convergence summer feeding grounds halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica. This is a remarkable journey. Satellite transponder studies by the Tawaki Project (see photo from winter 2020) show they may have swum a total of nearly 10,000km over that 6 month period.
The first sign of Tawaki’s arrival on our coast are a set of footprints by the 4 to 4.5kg male penguins leading from the Tasman Sea across the beach heading to the coastal forests. Males are joined about two weeks later by the slightly smaller 3.5 to 4kg female. The pair are both exceptionally chubby in preparation for the demands of the breeding season.
It is so exciting for us to see them meet their mate after an absence in the wildest oceans on earth where they are apart for 6 months or more. They don’t show much excitement and just stand facing each other, occasionally mutually grooming and beak touching.
Over the next five months, we will closely monitor Tawaki at the South Westland breeding colonies that we have studied and helped to protect for the last 33 years. Penguin numbers counted at our study colonies have nearly tripled over our 33 year study period (see graph below), helped by effective pest control by DOC and ourselves, prohibition of dogs on this coastline and public education and careful management of people by Wilderness Lodges of New Zealand, DOC, the West Coast Penguin Trust and the Tawaki Project.
Dr Gerry McSweeney has been monitoring tawaki or Fiordland crested penguins as they come and go near the Wilderness Lodge he opened back in 1989. Careful recording of numbers of penguins seen throughout the breeding season has developed into an invaluable source of data.
In recent facebook posts, which have been picked up by the media including an interview on RNZ recently, Gerry shares the excitement of tawaki arriving, the positive trend in numbers and the joy of being near these handsome birds.
We have collected together some of those stories into one place for easy access.
1: West Coast story “Rare penguins swim 2000km to return to the West Coast”. https://westcoast.co.nz/news/tawaki-swim-2000km-to-return-to-the-west-coast/
2: Facebook post: “Compare the numbers of Tawaki penguins counted on our standardised 90 minute trip counts 1996 to 1999 with Tawaki numbers counted 20 years later 2016-2019 (see graph below). Penguin numbers counted approximately doubled over this 20 year period. If the sighting results from 2021 and 2022 are compared with the 2016-2019 figures there has been a further approximately 50% increase in penguin counts compared to the 2016-2019 period. This all points to a very healthy Tawaki breeding population here. Certainly in every wild animal population there will be year on year variation but the overall trend of a growing population is very promising for penguin conservation.”
3: RNZ interview with Dr McSweeney, aired on ‘Nights’ on 2 August 2023: https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/nights/audio/2018901039/west-coast-penguins-return-home-after-2000km-trip
4: August 13th – video of tawaki pair having and the first of two eggs – facebook post.
5: Find the latest posts from Dr McSweeney and the wild South Westland coast here on the Wilderness Lodges facebook page.
The West Coast Penguin Trust will be monitoring breeding success in three tawaki colonies this season and will provide updates as they become available.