Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula

March 9 – 11th

After leaving our great campsite, we walked to Purakaunui Falls - the prettiest falls in the Catlins from the ones we saw!

Purakaunui Falls
We took the coastal road to Dunedin, and when we were still far out of town we came upon the "Welcome to Dunedin" sign. It turns out that Dunedin is the fifth largest city in the world - by geographic size! It only has 123,000 people of which 25,000 are University students, but it is definitely large in area.

This area was first settled by Maori, then whalers and sealers, before it was firmly established as a Scottish community in the mid-1800's. Dunedin is the Celtic name for Edinburgh and it is possible to find haggis here, though I am NOT tempted. It also has the largest curling rink in the Southern hemisphere.

We drove straight to the University of Otago where we met Dr. Christopher Moy. Chris, a colleague of both Darrell and Vera, is a professor here and he gave us a tour of campus as well as a driving tour of Dunedin. The University of Otago is New Zealand’s oldest university, founded in 1869. It is a lovely campus as you can see from the photo of our van in front of the clocktower.

The Clocktower with our van peaking out to the right of the tree
Walking around the University we came upon some improvised student housing.  Maybe not as nice as the tree houses at the University of Santa Cruz, but you have to take what you can get!

Prime student housing in Dunedin
The next morning, while Chris worked, Darrell, Vera and I played tourist. Our first stop was the farmer's market near the historic train station. Vera and I were entertained by the youth playing bagpipe's in the garden. Notice the giant purple tower - home of Cadbury Chocolates - behind him!

Bagpipes, British gardens, and Cadbury
We then drove out to the Otago Peninsula. First we tried to walk to Sandfly Bay, where there is a hide for watching penguins (though they are rarely there during the day). The winds were so strong the sand was blowing in our faces, so we gave up and went to the Marine Science Center on the other side of the peninsula.

Marine Science Center on the Otago Peninsula
We lucked out because it was fish-feeding day at the aquarium, so we got to see the fish (including some sharks) get a little more excited than they might normally. We also took a walk to visit more sheep. You can see the effect of the wind on the shrubs here!

Wind-swept trees and ever-present sheep
That evening Chris had a barbecue at his house and we got to meet some of his other colleagues as well as a German group that was there for research and some of the great graduate students in his department.

The next morning I got up early and went for a swim in the neighborhood salt water pool. It is so great to be swimming outdoors in HEATED water. Unfortunately, it is only open in the 6 warmer months so closed on the last day of March...

St. Clair Salt Water Pool
When I got back to the house, we all hung around the kitchen working on computers and drinking coffee. It is fun to watch scientists interact and get excited about the science they are doing.

Working in Chris's kitchen (Photo by Vera)
Chris invited us to return and house-sit while he is off at field camps and doing his own research in April, so we will be back to this lovely place again!

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.