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PONDER Blog

It Pays to Know the Locals.

Chelsea Behymer

Last cruise, when having coffee with the kiwi destination speaker onboard about how much I'd enjoyed my time in Zealandia, I was encouraged to find a way to get to Orokonui Ecosanctuary the next time I was in Dunedin. This advice was echoed by the local pilot that came onboard to help navigate the ship through the fjords of Fiordland National Park. The night before our arrival in Dunedin, the tour I was initially scheduled to escort was cancelled, so guess where I went?

 Forests reminiscent of times past. Orokonui Ecosanctuary, New Zealand. 

Forests reminiscent of times past. Orokonui Ecosanctuary, New Zealand. 

Orokonui Ecosanctuary is about 6.5km uphill from where the ship docks in Port Chalmers. When I asked for directions, the information desk staff in port said that I couldn't possibly be thinking to walk, which just served to solidify my determination to do just that (I am my mother's daughter). A little over an hour later, I was looking down through the morning mist at the lush canopy of Orokonui covering the hillside below. It stood out from the cleared pastureland and planted pine tree groves on either side of the predator proof perimeter of the sanctuary. The project was designed based on the Karori Sanctuary at Zealandia, and has absolutely repeated its success. 

 Bellbird and Harakeke mutualism. Orokonui Ecosanctuary, New Zealand. 

Bellbird and Harakeke mutualism. Orokonui Ecosanctuary, New Zealand. 

The forests within the fence are teeming with native bird and insect life. Examples of the intricate relationships between species are everywhere, the health of the system so obviously interdependent on all of its parts. 

 Rimu tree topography. Orokonui Ecosanctuary, New Zealand. 

Rimu tree topography. Orokonui Ecosanctuary, New Zealand. 

I was even followed closely by a couple of curious native forest birds, whose behavior could almost be interpreted as a form of gratitude, or of reverting back to a time when they had no fear of foreign mammals. 

 Another friendly local, the tomtit or miromiro. Orokonui Ecosanctuary, New Zealand. 

Another friendly local, the tomtit or miromiro. Orokonui Ecosanctuary, New Zealand. 

Feeling rewarded for the fantastic opportunity to better understand its natural history by this intimate experience with a native New Zealand landscape, the next day in Akaroa, I decided to take a tip from the naturalist who had been onboard prior to my arrival ...

I found Tony, skipper and owner of Coast up Close, a boat that specializes in wildlife tours around the Banks Peninsula, standing on the pier with a warm smile. After a short introduction, he welcomed me onboard. Tony grew up on the waters around Banks Peninsula, and was happy to share his knowledge and introduce his passengers to some of the other locals.

 Young white-flippered little blue penguin testing the waters. Akaroa, New Zealand.

Young white-flippered little blue penguin testing the waters. Akaroa, New Zealand.

It's amazing how much information is simply 'local knowledge', a collection of observations from those that directly experience this environment on a daily basis. Tony told me stories of orca among the specialized New Zealand population subjecting sharks to tonic immobility (nervous reflex observed in several shark species, where muscles and respiratory system relax when the animal is upside down) one day, and congregating cordially with the usually preyed upon Hector's Dolphins the next. And in his crayfish pot, we not only found Tony's dinner, but two female sand sharks that (following the example of his orca friends) he 'relaxed' enough to show us before releasing them back to the water.

 Sleepy sand shark. Akaroa, New Zealand. 

Sleepy sand shark. Akaroa, New Zealand. 

 NZ Fur Seal pup not quite ready to venture beyond the safety of mum. Akaroa, New Zealand. 

NZ Fur Seal pup not quite ready to venture beyond the safety of mum. Akaroa, New Zealand. 

 Sea shepherds come in all shapes and sizes. Akaroa, New Zealand. 

Sea shepherds come in all shapes and sizes. Akaroa, New Zealand. 

Even Tony's dog, with her canine hearing abilities, helps visitors spot the Hector's Dolphins that, along with all of the other marine life around, serve as wonderful ambassadors for wild encounters. From the past few visits here, I've repeatedly observed the amazing amount and variety of marine life that is present in and around the Banks Peninsula in summer. However, this trip, not only was I able to appreciate that fact, but was overwhelmed with the underlying (literally) cause. Back on the ship that evening, I was posted at my usual open deck sail away spot, making my first ever observation of a giant petrel, when I noticed strange swirls of color in the water below. For the next hour or so, as the daylight waned, I watched in amazement as we sailed through seemingly endless masses of southern krill. The 'deep scattering layer' had risen! Hiding out at depth during the day, these prolific creatures migrate to the surface at night to feed on their photosynthetic prey. 

 Ocean summer buffet. Akaroa, New Zealand. 

Ocean summer buffet. Akaroa, New Zealand. 

In response to the timing of the krill, many of the other animals that I'd observed along the coastline of the Banks Peninsula, were also moving offshore to feed. As I watched a fur seal thrash about within one of the masses of krill, and several Buller's albatross land excitedly on the surface of another, I decided it was time for me to dine too, and headed to the oceanview buffet, where I could continue to marvel at the ocean feasting. 

 Friendly farewell. Akaroa, New Zealand. 

Friendly farewell. Akaroa, New Zealand.