Yellow-eyed penguins, the rarest penguins (and most attractive I’d say) in the world, endemic to New Zealand. If you prefer, call them by their Māori names, hōiho or takaraka. Whatever, with their distinctive band of yellow plumage and yellow eyes, they are the treasure of Nugget Point.
Yellow-eyed penguins live on the Otago Peninsula on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, the wildlife capital of the Kiwi nation. Nugget Point Totāra (Roaring Bay, so called because of the wind) Scenic Reserve is one of the two best places to spot them, late in the afternoon when after fishing at sea they come ashore to their nesting places in coastal vegetation.
It’s not easy to see these rare penguins. They’re small in size, they’re shy, there are few of them, darkness gathers quicky and, by law, you must stay a good distance away.
Besides, they’re tired and ready for the nest by the time they arrive. Yellow-eyed penguins swim as far as 50 kilometres offshore on any given day. Benthic foragers, they dive to depths of 120 metres to scrounge the South Pacific seabed for food. Hence their scientific name megadyptes antipodes (mega=big, dyptes=diver, antipodes=southern lands). Swimming and diving to avoid being captured at sea by sharks, barracouta, fur seals and sea lions tires them out, too.
We had a long drive ahead of us that night to reach our campsite but I insisted we make the effort to spot a yellow-eye. We parked our rented motorhome, Kohanga (nest in Māori), and began the short walk to the viewing platform at the end of the path at Nugget Point Lighthouse, its name derived from wave-eroded rocks likened to the shape of gold nuggets. It was April, autumn in New Zealand and around 5 pm. About ten of us had gathered to pan the point and see eye-to-eye with rare penguins.
Yellow-eyed penguins are classified as nationally endangered in New Zealand. In 2018/19 the country had only 225 pairs, the lowest level in thirty years. Only around 15% of yellow-eyed penguins survive until breeding age (2-3 years for females, 3-5 years for males) and breeders declined 76% between 1996 and 2015.
But these low numbers aren’t mainly caused by predators at sea and land threats from stoats, cats and dogs. Gillnets hung vertically in the water to trap fish are entangling yellow-eyed penguins and causing them to drown. And trawling, dragging fishnets along the ocean floor, is shrinking the biodiversity of the penguin’s foraging areas. Lancelot Eric Richdale, a local schoolteacher and amateur ornithologist who has been keeping fastidious records of yellow-eyed penguins for decades, and Thomas Mattern, an ecologist at the University of Otago, attribute the fishing industry to be responsible for two-thirds of the deaths of yellow-eyed penguins.
If you look at the economic value of the fish they are catching, they catch primarily really low value fish that we then eat as fish and chips, as fast food,” said Mattern. “We’ve done some rough comparison, and the four fishermen at the Otago peninsula make a net profit around 1 million New Zealand dollars, 680,000 dollars American.
Yet the penguins we have here, they bring in the tourism. And it’s been estimated that just a single pair of penguins brings in $250,000 a year to the local economy. Now, we used to have 200 pairs here—you do the math.
Penguins are high-ranking “charismatic megafauna” that attract tourists. The Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust has joined forces with local nature-based tour operators to “argue the case for action on the issue of penguins and fisheries interactions. We have recognised that the conservation of this endangered New Zealand icon is a joint concern.” In addition to its research and protection of these birds, the Trust is also safeguarding and improving their habitat, trapping mammalian predators and providing nesting opportunities.
It was nearly 5:30. Despondency was in the air. Some people had already left. Then out of the inky sea three yellow-eyed penguins appeared!
Those yellow eyes, it turns out, are not only mesmerizing, they’re golden in value. The yellow pigment comes from carotene, which gives colour to carrots, tomatoes and small sea creatures. High in vitamin A, carotene is eye food. A study found the penguins with deeper yellow eyes reared more chicks than those with very pale-coloured eyes, suggesting the yellow pigment is advantageous in catching food.
It was too dark for us to truly see the yellow in their eyes. Still, some nights when twilight approaches, I remember Nugget Point, the afterglow.
Pierre-Louis, Kendra. “New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguin is waddling towards extinction.” Popular Science. May 16, 2017
The Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust offers excellent info on this rare, charismatic megafauna.