There are two ways that you can see Albatross in New Zealand, and both of them centre around the Royal Albatross centre located at Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula. The first way is you can take a shuttle bus to their facility and look down at them from viewing stations.The second way is to take a Monarch Wildlife Cruise.
Starting at Wellers rock (a 40min drive from Dunedin) we were welcomed onboard the Monarch by the friendly and enthusiastic guides. As we sailed out of the harbour we were given binoculars, a bird identification card and a warm coat. We were also told about the wildlife we could expect to see, and of some of the local history of the area. What I found particularly interesting was the fact that there was a fort built into the cliffs to repel an expected Russian attack on Dunedin’s harbour. Needless to say the attack never happened.
I have wanted to see an albatross in the wild ever since reading an article on them in the National Geograpihic. They are fascinating birds that only come ashore to nest, and Taiaroa Head (at the end of the Otago Penninsular) is the only mainland nesting site in the world.
The type of albatross that you will likely see on the tour is the Northern Royal Albatross. With a wingspan of up to 3m and a average weight of 7kg they are also easy to spot. The first one that we saw was flying towards the cliffs, close to the sea surface in a lazy zigzag fashion. It does this so that it can build up enough speed to be lifted up the cliff on the updraft. Once the skipper of the Monarch had calculated where the flight path would likely end up, he positioned the boat with the bow directly underneath it. It worked, and the bird flew right over us!
We stayed there for a little while watching the albatross in their nesting area whilst the guide told us about the mating rituals that we were observing. Once they have paired up a single egg, twice the size of an orange, is laid. The Northern Royal Albatross can also live up to around 45 years and, during this time, is expected to travel over four million kilometres at speeds of around 100kph!
The albatross is not the only wildlife that you can spot whilst on the wildlife tour. We also saw fur seals swimming and resting on the rocks at the waters edge, and countless flocks of seabirds fishing. Before I went on the cruise I assumed that seeing the Albatross would be the highlight. I was unashamedly wrong. The highlight of my cruise with Monarch was seeing the extremely rare Hectors Dolphin.
These tiny dolphins, only 1.4m long, are endemic to New Zealand and are the second rarest type of dolphin in the world (the first being the Maui Dolphin which is closely related to the Hectors but located only on the North Island). It was not the first time I had seen dolphins. I have seen them many times in the wild, both Bottlenose Dolphins and Amazonian Pink River Dolphins. But this was the first time I had experienced dolphins so close. Although sightings of the dolphins are not guaranteed it is fairly common to see them whilst on the cruise, as in the cabin there is a identification sheet where the crew have given names to the six dolphins that are sighted the most. Sadly the Hectors Dolphin is endangered with only 8000 left in the wild.
Despite the Monarch Wildlife Cruise only lasting for an hour we got to see so much more then I thought we would. The guides were also helpful and very approachable if you had any questions. I also did not expect that we would get so close to the albatross and seeing the dolphins in the wild was probably the highlight of traveling around New Zealand and had I only done a land tour I would have missed out on a great experience.
Our Otago Peninsula Wildlife tour was provided complimentary by Monarch Wildlife tours, but the opinions in this article are strictly our own.