Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Wild and Wooly Catlin Coast

March 5th – 9th
At the end of our great day on Ulva Island (see last blog), Vera and I headed to the ferry. On the way we overheard a lovely young backpacker being asked if she was on holiday, for perhaps one too many times, as she sassily replied “No, I’ve come here to die.”

While I’m sure she intended it as a flippant response, and she was far too young to be contemplating her demise, I think Stewart Island would be a lovely choice for a final resting place. If you walked slowly enough into the woods you would be wrapped and concealed by moss and fern and gently become part of the landscape…

Crossing Foveaux Strait, we were lucky enough to see some incredible seabirds. Vera saw a raft of Little Blue Penguins as they headed back to shore for the night. Then we saw both Shy and Buller’s Mollymawks (albatrosses) following a fishing boat.  For you non-birders out there, albatross are among the largest flying birds, though these species don’t have quite the eleven-foot wingspan of the great albatrosses.

Fishing boat being followed by Mollymawks
 Darrell met us off the Stewart Island ferry and we went out for dinner at “The Zookeeper’s Cafe”, replete with large painted giraffes and elephants. Darrell tried the large green-lipped mussels that are harvested in this area, while Vera and I regaled him with tales of our adventures. Meanwhile, he had spent the last five days working in the van in the rain.  No question who had the richer experience, but I understand he does have to work on sabbatical…

The next morning we three continued our journey southeast to the Catlin coast. This southern coast is lashed by winds from Antarctica, and is as wild and wooly a place as I have been. The intense energy of this coast was both energizing and exhausting.

Our first stop was Waipapa Point, known mostly as the site of a devastating shipwreck and now home to the southernmost lighthouse in New Zealand, as well as colonies of both fur seals and sea lions. We observed some aggressive behavior from the big fellow on the right, keeping another male (we presume) at bay.

Sea Lions getting pushy at Waipapa Point
Farther down the coast, at Curio Bay, are the remains of a Jurassic (170 my old) petrified forest that is exposed at low tide. You can see tall tree trunks on their side as well as tree stumps still sticking up.

Jurassic forest at Curio Bay (Photo by Vera)
On the other side of the point is Porpoise Bay, where a pod of the small and rare Hector’s Dolphins actually come and swim around people in the water. I would have braved the cold water but I wasn’t wearing a bathing suit so I just watched them swimming and leaping. Cool.

We scored a campsite right on the edge of the crashing ocean (where there are also seals and sea lions) so we’d be in the neighborhood to see the yellow-eyed penguins come ashore at night to sleep in the coastal shrubs. It was raining out but we walked back to the exposed ledge with the Jurassic trees and stayed long enough to see two penguins make their way onto shore.  They didn’t seem to be in any hurry to move along and just stood there in the rain.
Yellow-eyed Penguin, hangin' out in the rain
The next day, with the rain gone, we stopped at McLean’s Falls, and then went for an estuary hike near Papatowai. We were hoping to see the elusive fern bird at the estuary but it remained elusive… We did see thousands of snails that looked like they were ripe for a bird to pick off the mud though!

Vera and Darrell on the estuary boardwalk 
We set up camp that afternoon at gorgeous Purakaunui Bay. This was one of our nicest DOC sites ever. And when the full moon rose over the ocean it became even more beautiful.

Moon over Purakaunui Bay - View from our campsite 
After checking our e-mail in Owaka the next morning, we headed to Nugget Point. The seals and sea lions at Nugget Point were amazing. The seals could somehow use their flippers to get up on some of the high rocks. (The sea lions are below in the sand.) You may not see them in this photo, but they are there!

The black dots on the rocks are New Zealand fur seals!
We spent the night at Kaka Point, and walked along the rocks in the intertidal zone that night.  Darrell also got to see the sea tulips we had first seen at Ulva Island. So the mystery will now be solved – what is a Sea Tulip?

Google image of a sea tulip
The sea tulip is actually a pretty close relation to humans; it is another ascidian! Pretty crazy looking relative, eh? Here is the take from Wikipedia:
Sea tulips, scientific name Pyura spinifera, are sessile ascidians that live in coastal waters at depths of up to 80 m (260 feet). Like all ascidians, sea tulips are filter feeders. Their common name comes from their appearance - that of a knobbly 'bulb' or flower attached to a long stalk. Sea tulips come in a variety of colours, including white, pink, yellow, orange, and purple. The coloration of sea tulips depends upon their association with a symbiotic sponge that covers their surface.

"Sweet as..." as the Kiwi's say!

The next day, Vera and I took a morning walk, both in the bush and along the beach, and then we drove to the mouth of the Taieri river for a picnic lunch, before heading to meet a colleague at our next stop – Dunedin.

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