Penguins, Seals, and Dolphins, Oh My!

We left Dunedin wishing we had a few more days to see the town and visit more exotic beaches like Sandfly Bay.  We headed down South along the East coast to an area called the Catlins.  This region is known for abundant wildlife, beautiful “edge of the world” beaches, and forests and waterfalls galore.  Since New Zealand is a place where even the most inexperienced traveler can get around with ease, we could effortlessly drive down South on the one and only main highway without a map and still catch every main attraction the area has to offer.  It becomes quite difficult to actually get anywhere quickly when signs are pointing to caves, waterfalls, beaches, lookout points, and lighthouses every few kilometers.  Our first stop on the tourist sign track was Nugget Point Lighthouse.  New Zealand not only points you in the right direction to see the sights, it also provides nice signs to indicate how long it will take you to walk to the point of interest from the car park.  We took the quick 10 minute walk up to a point where a lovely lighthouse was nestled on top of a cliff, overlooking the sea below.  The viewing platform allowed us to marvel at the massive “nuggets” shooting up out of the Pacific and watch seals perch themselves amongst the rocks and swim around the seaweed swaying in the water beneath us.

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After a night camping at a Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite right on the beach at Purakanui Bay, we had a morning complete with a surf session for John, a beach run for me, and a hike around some gorgeous rock cliffs next to the campsite.  We hopped right back on the tourist sign track and ventured to the nearby Purakanui falls.  Another quick hike and we were standing at a stunning waterfall amongst exotic vegetation.  Next stop: Cathedral Caves!

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We happened to time the tides right, just by chance, and were treated to a really unique experience.  This massive sea cave is only accessible two hours on either side of low tide and they really are something worth seeing.  It’s amazing how small you feel walking through the sandy bottomed cave looking up at the massive rock around you.  As we started to exit the cave, we heard some people in front of us shouting and we looked up to see water suddenly rushing into the cave!  Time was up, the tide was coming in!  We swiftly made our way back up the beach and headed for what would become one of our favorite experiences in New Zealand.

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John made us a delicious steak dinner in Tim Tam the campervan at our new home, a campsite in Porpoise Bay.  Beers in hand, we set off for the 5 minute walk to spectacular Curio Bay.  We had heard this was one of the best spots for wildlife sightings in New Zealand, but we were skeptical after our fabulous time spotting penguins and sea lions in the Otago Peninsula.

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Curio Bay is a rocky bay on the Southern coast of New Zealand’s South Island and is freely accessible to the public.  The DOC has placed a rope on the rocks to show people where they are permitted to ensure that the wildlife is protected.  We sat on the rocks enjoying our beers in the chilly, windy weather.  All of a sudden we started seeing some movement in the distance and people around us were whispering and pointing toward the figure of a yellow-eyed penguin!  The penguins swim and fish in the ocean all day and return to their nests each evening around dusk.  More and more penguins started to appear on the rocks in the distance.  They would climb onto the rocks so quickly that we often didn’t see them until they were already on shore.  A few moments later, two penguins were climbing out of the water and waddling right for us!  We watched in awe as they shuffled along the rocks, stopped to shake out their wings, stretch their necks, and took a much needed rest after a long day at sea.  We couldn’t believe how close they were getting, less than 10 feet away from us.  I just kept thinking, “it doesn’t get any better than this!”.  But wait, it does!

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We heard some squeaky noises coming from the bushes about 5 feet away and out pops two big, fluffy, baby penguins!  We had been sitting there waiting for the adults to come to shore and the babies had been in the bushes right next to us all along!  The babies were so fluffy that they actually appeared to be bigger than their parents, who happened to be the two yellow-eyed penguins that were still heading in our direction.  The babies started following their mom and dad, clumsily tripping over rocks left and right.  It seemed as though they were being coaxed into a swimming lesson and one of the two babies was not having it.  At one point, he turned around and headed right back for his nest while his dad stood squealing at him from a rock by the water.  We sat and watched the babies and parents interact for nearly an hour until it was too dark to see them.  John had to pretty much pry me away from the bay so that we could walk back to our campsite at Porpoise Bay.

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Porpoise Bay is a popular surfing area in the Catlins, so John was determined to get a few rides in before we left.  The weather had turned even more windy, cold, and rainy than the night before, but he suited up and jumped in the cold water anyway.  I was watching him surf and couldn’t get over how many dolphins were swimming around in this bay.  John got out of the water, shivering and teeth chattering, exclaiming that he had just surfed with dolphins!  Not just any dolphin.  These were hector dolphins – the smallest and most rare dolphins in the world that just so happen to enjoy the waters at Porpoise Bay (I wonder how it got it’s name!).  He said they were swimming so close that he actually brushed one with his hand while he was paddling.  People pay hundreds of dollars to swim with hector dolphins in New Zealand and John just got the opportunity of a lifetime to swim with these amazing creatures alone in the ocean.

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As the weather started to clear, we left the land of penguins, dolphins, and seals and headed for the southernmost point of New Zealand: Slope Point.  We made this stop on our way to our next destination – Fiordland.


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