As the Northern Royal Albatross spreads its massive wings, I thought this day couldn’t get any better. Then, our second Royal Albatross Centre tour brought us to a beach that is now a Little Blue Penguin habitat. Here, we witnessed 95 fairy penguins return from the sea, waddle across the sand, and climb the rocks just metres from where we stood.
The evening’s magic is burned into my brain. The birds are extraordinary; one the world’s largest flying species, the other the world’s smallest penguin. As a photographer, it was a bit of a miss, one of my first fails. Excitement, fog, tinted observation area glass (albatross), and shadows (penguins) create a less than ideal photography shoot. Yet, our time at the Royal Albatross Centre was a highlight of our recent visit to Dunedin.
It began with a picturesque drive to Taiaroa Head at the end of the Otago Peninsula. Here, the albatross have created a home, and the Royal Albatross Centre offers tours. We opted to do it all. First, we joined one of the albatross tours, then we explored Fort Taiaroa, next, we enjoyed dinner at the cafe, and finally, we watched a breeding colony of penguins return to their habitat.
Albatross Colony Dunedin
Taiaroa Head is home to the only mainland breeding colony of the Northern Royal Albatross. They mate for life, returning here once every two years to breed. They produce one chick per breeding cycle and they sit on that egg for 79 days before it hatches.
Albatross is the world’s largest flying species, and the Northern Royal Albatross is the third largest of the breed, weighing in at up to 9kg. Their massive wingspan expands up to three metres. Graceful to witness, they glide, rarely flapping their wings. Once a chick has fledged, it will take 10 days to fly from New Zealand to South America at speeds up to 120 kph, returning to Taiaroa Head as a teen to find a mate.
Fort Taiaroa and the Armstrong Disappearing Gun
The historic Fort Taiaroa is one of New Zealand’s earliest settlements. A Maori camp in the 1300s, it later became a fortified Pa and was one of many sites where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840.
Like many peninsulas in New Zealand, Taiaroa Head was used for defence, first by the Maori, and then later by New Zealand. Similar to North Head in Devonport, Fort Taiaroa was built underground and into the hill during the 1880s for fear of Russian invasion. Both sites use a system of tunnels and the famous New Zealand Armstrong disappearing gun.
Dinner at the Albatross Cafe
We took the last albatross tour of the day. This left us with enough time to enjoy dinner before the penguin tour started at dusk. The floor to ceiling atrium style windows makes the Albatross Cafe a pleasant place to enjoy a meal or a coffee.
Breeding Colony of Penguins
Standing on the platform overlooking Pilots Beach, we watched for movement in the water. Each evening at dusk, the Little Blue Penguins come home in groups, called rafts. Easy to spot, from the first glance you could feel the excitement. The Royal Albatross Centre has installed lights, allowing us to see it all without disturbing the birds. The natural atmosphere enhances the magic. The gentle breeze carries the fresh aroma of the ocean mixed with wafts of damp penguin. Their tiny bodies waddle up the beach, scamper over the rocks, and disappear into burrows. The loud squawking vocalization of the penguins is the only thing that interrupts our thoughts.
We saw 95 Little Blues that night. They are part of a breeding colony of penguins that mate for life and return to the same spot on Pilots Beach daily. At only 25 cm tall, their camouflage protects these flightless birds from penguin predators. Their blue backs look like the ocean to flying birds from above, while their white bellies appear like a glow from the sun to penguin predators lurking under the sea.
Practical Information on Visiting the Royal Albatross Centre
- The New Zealand Department of Conservation manages the albatross colony as a nature reserve, while the Royal Albatross Centre is operated by the Otago Peninsula Trust. Both organizations focus on preservation and education.
- As there is no public or self-guided access into the nature reserve or beach, penguin and albatross tours are the only way to see this breeding area. Tour fees help pay for conservation work.
- The Royal Albatross Centre offers a variety of tour options, each including one or a combination of the albatross, Fort Taiaroa, and penguins. They also offer a tour option with transportation from Dunedin. See the Royal Albatross Centre tour options on their official website.
- Daily penguin or albatross tours should be booked in advance, as they often fill up.
- The Albatross Cafe closes one hour before dusk. If you want to do what we did, order your meal before the albatross tour.
- Here is a Royalcam live stream:
- Otago Peninsula’s nickname is the Wildlife Capital of New Zealand.
- Little Blue Penguins live in many places in the southern hemisphere. We have seen them on TiriTiri Matangi Island in Auckland and in St. Kilda in Melbourne (Australia).
- If you prefer tours to doing it yourself, and you want to see other Dunedin penguins, sea lions, seals, and other wildlife, another option is one of the Wildlife tours from Viator that include the Royal Albatross Centre, plus more.
- If you are planning to view the penguins at night, you will need a place to stay. There are a few options on the Otago Peninsula, or you may want to take the 45-minute drive back to Dunedin. We stayed at the Distinction Hotel. Either way, we find the best hotel prices at Booking.com.
Will you see it all at the Royal Albatross Centre?
Disclaimer: The Royal Albatross Centre hosted our visit. However, the opinions expressed here are strictly my own.