Wildlife on a wild beach
From Dunedin follow SH88 past Port Chalmers to Aramoana. This is a narrow road but passable for large campervans.
Keep driving along the shoreline road until the tar seal ends.
There is a parking area with information panel.
There are no formal tracks here, but several options:
Shelly Beach is fringed by dunes and the occasional sea lion basks on the sand.
Big Beach faces the open ocean with volcanic cliff formations behind. A huge boulder in the middle is nikcknamed Keyhole Rock. Past here you sometimes see yellow-eyed penguins.
Aramoana Ecological Area is the dune and wetland system. Follow the shoreline at low tide towards the harbour.
The Mole is the breakwater guarding the entrance to Otago Harbour.
Fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri )were almost driven to extinction at the beginning of the 1800s, but numbers now seem to be recovering. Sealing was a disgusting job. Like a battle charge, gangs would disembark and attempt to intercept the wave of frightened seals before they reached the sea, directing one swift blow to the tip of the nose. A good sealer had to be quick, agile and strong. Brandishing wooden cudgels they would terrorise an area, heaping the skins under a suitably conspicuous tarpaulin before moving to the next colony.
Different markets called for variations on how the skin was treated. The Chinese market preferred carefully prepared skins, where the subcutaneous fat was scraped away by a ‘beamer’, the flipper holes sewn up and the skin dried. This was carried out in ritualistic fashion by 10 one foot long pegs secured in regular positions about the skin.
The rocky shores would have been stained with the blood of many merciless killings. Rotting carcasses would be strewn like war victims. Indeed the whole picture must have resembled a battle scene. Men who found employment as sealers were often rough and carried hidden baggage.
Seals are known as pinnipeds (wing footed) because of the webbed flippers instead of paws or feet. Streamlined bodies and blubber keep them warm (hence their hunting for fur). Their ears, nose flaps close when diving. They feed on squid, octopus and hoki.
Bull sea lions (Phocarctos hookeri) are absolute monsters, tipping the scales at 400 kg. You don’t want to get in the way of one, so be especially vigilant if passing between them and the sea – their escape route. They prefer to slumber on the sand, unlike fur seals who use the rocks as their mattresses. The sea lions are often observed flipping sand onto their backs in an effort to keep cool.
Yellow-eyed penguins (Megadyptes antipodes) weigh around 5 kg and stand around 70 centimetres tall. They breed in southern parts of New Zealand and Sub-Antarctic Islands in spring. Chicks are reared during the summer in nests constructed of flax. During the February moult, birds are vulnerable. Be Aware. Observe their behaviour and don’t hassle them for a photo. You have another home to go to. This is their home, so use your manners. Numbers are in serious decline.
Elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) are the super heavyweights of the seal world. It is normal for a bull male to weigh in at 3.5 tonnes, a full 2.5 tonnes heavier than the females. At 4-5m long these behemoths are the largest lumps of blubber you will find on land. Their engorged proboscis stuck on the front of their faces does nothing for their looks, but apparently makes males roar louder. Perhaps in their armoury of wooing techniques, as personal hygiene is never that flattering for any animal that predominantly eats fish. They range over most of the Southern Ocean areas and populations are in decline. Likely because we humans are eating all the fish. They are deep sea feeders and can spend nearly 30 minutes underwater on a single breath, diving to over 800m. If you should encounter one, remember they are wild animals and don’t take kindly to having lenses shoved in their faces. And if they decide to belly flop, you are a goner.
With binoculars, you may be able to spot soaring albatross from their colony at Tairoa Head at the opposite jaw of the harbour entrance.
The Mole was originally name Cargill Pier after William Cargill, founder of the Otago Province. The wooden remains of the original 1880s jetty are still here. By creating a physical barrier, marine engineers hoped to divert sediment loaded currents from silting up the harbour entrance. After the first Mole was destroyed by storms and fire, a second Mole was built from the 1920s. In fact the Mole has never really been ‘finished’. Man vs Ocean. Repairs are a constant.
South Island ▷ Coastal Otago ▷ Dunedin
Feli and Karsten
Awesome spot watching the surf community. Good long walks, interesting (long) drive out there, take a picnic.
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Bjorn Van Mulders
Spotting the wildlife.
Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍