Also known as Alfred and Cicily Beach, Otapahi is a Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust Reserve. It is a private reserve near Allan’s Beach that is surrounded by towering hills of grazing sheep and cattle. Dirt roads lead around Hoopers Inlet, which becomes a pit of mud when the tide is out. Similar to many other reserves around the area, extensive re-vegetation projects around the reserve have been ongoing since 1998 (soon after the reserve was purchased by the Trust). There are currently 8-10 Yellow-eyed penguin nests on Otapahi, with a maximum of 31 nests in 2008. An unknown mass mortality event occurred shortly thereafter and the population has not recovered.
Each year, the Conservation Biology class is granted special access to the reserve to view the penguins. Led by Phil Seddon and Yolanda van Heezik (my supervisors!) with the help of Mel Young and other postgraduate students (like me!), the students are taken in groups of about 30 by bus to the site. The struggle is real while climbing the ‘hill’. After traversing uneven ground, deep burrows excavated by rabbit and stoat, sloppy mud, sheep poo, and knee-high grass, we had to walk down the other side. Luckily this is only about half as the viewing site is on a cliff above the ocean. Once there, it is truly spectacular. The first time I did the trip I was very much last, huffing and puffing my way up. It was rainy and cold for this journey. Second time was almost the same, although it was a tad better. It was extremely windy at the top, almost enough to topple you over.
The viewing point was far from where the birds could see us, especially good because of the large number of people. We waited, and waited, from 3:45 pm to 5:00 pm. There is no guarantee a penguin will come home for the night. This is the time before their breeding season, so nothing is holding them to the land and the call of food is quite loud. Luckily we saw two birds come home on my first trip, taking their time riding the waves onto the beach. We were lucky because they came ashore at Alfred Beach, the closer of the two c-shaped beaches. On my second trip, a student had gotten cold and was not feeling well after the hike up, so I accompanied her down the hill prior to seeing the three penguins that came home that night. I was told they were spotted on the far beach. Besides the sense of accomplishment for a non-hiker from the USA, the pictures I got were beautiful and the experience was superb.