Geoff tells us his role in rescuing Gerry the Penguin, "Living and working on the West Coast you learn to expect the unexpected, and so I should not have been surprised when I found myself with a penguin called Gerry in a wine box on the passenger seat of my brand-new car, driving it to hospital…."
This is the remarkable story of a group of West Coasters coming to the aid of a rare tawaki (Fiordland crested penguin) which had been the victim of a shark attack.
RNZ Checkpoint, 5:51 pm on 7 December 2021
Our story begins with a couple who were visiting Monro Beach near Haast to watch the tawaki penguins which come ashore to breed during the spring. Upon arriving at the beach, the couple found an injured penguin which was unable to move and was baking in the heat of the midday sun. With this being the wild West Coast, there was no cell phone coverage to call for help, so one of the visitors raced 2.5kms back up the Monro Beach track to raise the alarm at the nearby Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge.
Luckily for the penguin, the lodge is run by well-known conservationist Gerry McSweeney (who runs penguin watching tours for his guests), and Gerry knew exactly what to do. He grabbed an old backpack, jumped on his bike and headed straight for the beach to recover the injured bird.
Shortly after Gerry had returned to the lodge and had placed the penguin in a small garden pond so it could have a drink and rehydrate, I arrived on the scene. I’d arranged to meet Gerry to run through some tourism marketing plans. But, those discussions were immediately postponed as Gerry knew I was on my way north to Fox Glacier, where he had just arranged for the tawaki to be looked after by the Department of Conservation.
So, the penguin was quickly transferred to an old wine box for the emergency medevac 100km up the road to Fox Glacier. Which sounds great, except that I was driving a brand-new car which I’d only picked up the day before and I had visions of penguin guano all over the interior of my shiny new vehicle!
Thankfully, the penguin was an extremely well-behaved patient and there are no lingering fishy smells in my car!
Upon arrival in Fox Glacier, the bird was nursed overnight by the local Department of Conservation staff, before continuing its West Coast road trip to Hokitika where, with the support of Air New Zealand, it was flown to Christchurch (and who says penguins can’t fly)?!
Gerry – as the staff at the Christchurch Wildlife Hospital have named the tawaki – had an operation to treat the shark bite to his back and legs and is now recovering well. It’s hoped that Gerry will be released back into the ocean at Monro Beach in a few weeks’ time having completed a remarkable tour of the South Island.