Rare penguins swim 2,000km to return to the West Coast

04 August 2023
Development West Coast
Making a 2,000-kilometre swim from their Sub-Antarctic Convergence summer feeding grounds, the Tawaki (Fiordland Crested Penguins) have once again reached the coastal rainforests of Lake Moeraki on the West Coast for their annual breeding season.

Since 1989, when we opened Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki, each year at the beginning of July we have welcomed Tawaki returning to the Lake Moeraki coastal forests to start their five-month breeding season," says Dr Gerry McSweeny, operator of Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki.

Tawaki undertake a remarkable journey, swimming a total of nearly 10,000km over a six-month period, according to satellite tracking studies by the Tawaki Project.

They are the third rarest of the world’s 18 penguin species – with an estimated 2,500-3,000 breeding pairs. Standing 60cm tall and weighing approximately 4kg, these rare penguins hold the distinction of being the only species that breeds in a temperate rainforest. During the breeding season, 10% of Tawaki are found around Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki on the West Coast.

Dr McSweeny says, "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 six months or more. They don't show much excitement and just stand facing each other occasionally mutually grooming and beak touching."

Tawaki Project satellite tracking

The Wilderness Lodge, in partnership with the Department of Conservation (DOC), the West Coast Penguin Trust, and the Tawaki Project, has been monitoring the penguins' breeding activities. Conservation efforts have proven fruitful, as penguin numbers have nearly tripled over the 33-year study period, according to Dr McSweeny.

He emphasised the success of recent years, stating, “2022 was a very good breeding season at our Tawaki monitor nest sites. Numbers of penguins were slightly down on the 2021 penguin season, but in both 2021 and 2022 we recorded more penguins than in the previous 30 years of our monitoring work. This is great news for Tawaki penguin conservation.“

Dr McSweeny said he counted an average of 7.2 penguins per trip between 1989 and 1992. That number increased to an average 21.4 penguins per trip between 2019 and 2022.

He believed the numbers had increased as a result of pest control and the prohibition of dogs in the area.

DOC’s landscape aerial pest control programme has played a big role in Tawaki Penguin survival and prosperity.

“The latest treatment was 26-27 August 2022 and this meant very low rat and stoat numbers were here and that means that the penguin have a very successful breeding season.”

Under a special license from DOC, the Wilderness Lodge offers daily guided penguin trips, providing guests with the opportunity to witness these rare penguins in their natural habitat. "From 11 September 2023 onwards you can join us to look at the penguins on the beaches from our Open Hide," invites Dr McSweeny.

The guided penguin trips are carefully managed to avoid disturbance with small groups sitting quietly and discreetly while penguins come and go naturally across the beach.

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