Celebrating World Whale Day: whale watching around Newfoundland

Next Sunday, 21 February, is World Whale Day. The origin of World Whale Day can be traced back to 1980, when it was declared in Maui, Hawaii as part of the annual Maui Whale Festival. During our visit to Hawaii in 2014 whales were in short supply (it was the wrong time of year), but over the years we’ve been lucky enough to see them in the waters off Iceland, Madagascar, New Zealand and Alaska.

However our best encounters were around Newfoundland, Canada, in 2017, and to celebrate World Whale Day I thought I’d revisit some of the blog posts I wrote at the time. We spent around four weeks on The Island, as the locals call it, and without doubt the whales were the highlight of the trip. I wrote a blog of our Newfoundland journey at the time, but the following focuses on our magical, memorable meetings with some of the many humpbacks that spend the summer months around its shores.

Having a whale of a time

4 July 2017

The tell-tale spout of a whale announcing his presence

Today’s been a woolly hat day, courtesy of a bitter wind howling in from the high Arctic. It’s appropriate therefore that we should have seen our first iceberg this afternoon as we drove the coast road towards the bizarrely named township of Heart’s Content, which, as I’m sure you know, is just down the road from its sister settlements of Heart’s Desire and Heart’s Delight!

The cold has been made more bearable by the warm afterglow of yesterday evening’s brilliant whale-watching trip. Whale-watching is always a bit of a lottery, and sometimes you lose.  But yesterday we hit the jackpot.

Pretty soon we are amongst them, surrounded by a pod of five or six humpbacks

St John’s sits in a sheltered harbour, connected to the sea by a narrow inlet unimaginatively referred to as “the narrows.” Passing through the narrows we were thrilled to spot the towering, tell-tale spouts of whales announcing their presence to the world.  Hey guys, they seemed to say, we’re over here, why don’t you pop along and say hello.  We took them at their word and pretty soon we were amongst them, surrounded by a pod of five or six humpbacks.

Best of all was when they arched their backs to make a deep dive. This is the manoeuvre that causes the whale’s huge, fluked tail to lift clear of the water, a clown’s battered, white-gloved hand waving goodbye to his adoring fans before the animal plunges into the murky depths in search of lunch.

A clown’s white-gloved hand waving farewell to his adoring fans

I struggle to explain why I find whale-watching such an emotional experience. Partly, maybe, it has something to do with the fairy tale notion of a gentle giant.  But also, mixed in with this, is a sense of shame at mankind’s persecution of this majestic, harmless creature in the pursuit of a quick profit.  Hunted to the brink of extinction humpbacks are, thankfully, now on the way back.  They are awe inspiring animals, and it’s a joy to see them.  Yesterday was a memorable day; yesterday was a great day.

In the thick of it: the whales of Witless Bay

27 July 2017

Our evening whale-watching trip out of the harbour at Bay Bulls starts with a visit to Gull Island. Unsurprisingly, it’s generously endowed with gulls and other seabirds, including the ever-popular puffin. But birdwatching isn’t the purpose of our journey today, and we quickly move on to Witless Bay, reputedly the best place in Newfoundland to get up close and personal with humpback whales.  For once the hype is fully justified, and within a few minutes we find ourselves surrounded by a group of between 15 and 20 humpbacks, all gorging themselves on fish (capelin) that congregate here to breed.

Surfacing with a loud, fishy-smelling blow of exhaled air and tiny water droplets

The skipper kills the engine and we sit still in the water, mesmerised by the whales circling all around us. The humpbacks patrol the bay, breaking the surface as they swim sedately along, then diving suddenly in pursuit of their quarry, then surfacing again with a loud “blow” of exhaled air and water-droplets.

A couple of times we see them lunge-feeding, exploding from the deep with huge gaping mouths that have, in this single manoeuvre, made short work of thousands of tiny fish.  Occasionally we spot one spy-hopping, raising his head above the water’s surface to watch what we’re up to. They approach within metres of the boat, so close was can see barnacles growing on their skin. Sometimes they simply lie at the surface like floating logs, as if winded by the sheer volume of fish they’ve just swallowed.

They approach so close we can see barnacles growing on their skin

Today could have been a pretty miserable day, but it turns out to be one of the best we’ve had in Newfoundland. Yet this is a strange place, and Newfies march to the beat of a different drum.  After the whale watching is over we retire to a nearby restaurant that specialises in fish.  The waitress welcomes us warmly, says we can sit anywhere we like and have anything on the menu … except fish.  Unsurprisingly perhaps in a part of Canada where Basil Fawlty sets standards that some locals find unattainable, it appears that the fish restaurant has completely run out of fish.

Relaxed, unafraid, at peace in their world: the whales of Witless Bay

31 July 2017

Our last day on The Island.  We decide to end the adventure in style by taking another whale-watching trip to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, hardly daring to believe it can be as successful as the first.

Whales to the left, whales to the right, whales in front and whales behind

This time we know the ropes, arriving at the dock and joining the line early.  This means we can be amongst the first to board, which allows us to choose a prime position.  We head for the top deck and station ourselves at the pointy (bow) end, which offers good views both left and right of the boat.  The weather is warm and sunny, the sea swell rolling our boat gently as we ease our way out of the harbour and past the low cliffs lining its entrance.

Again we call at Gull Island on the way, enjoying the sight of the puffins and smiling at the excitement of our fellow travellers when they spot their first “sea parrot”.  There are thousands of puffins sitting on the rocks watching the world go by, while a few others venture out on to the sea and swim past our boat.

We quickly leave the clownish birds behind us and head towards the spouts that tell us the humpbacks are still here. Soon we are amongst them, whales to the left, whales to the right, whales in front and whales behind, while seabirds wheel overhead, seeking out the same fish that have drawn the humpbacks to this spot.

Little and Large (Notice the puffin in the bottom left corner of this shot!)

There must be two dozen whales at least, and some of them come so close we can almost touch them, can smell their fishy breath.  A few swim alongside us, keeping pace with the boat as if out for a stroll with a group of friends. Others cross casually in front of us at the surface of the water, relaxed, unafraid, at peace in their world.

But then, somewhere deep within them, instinct kicks in. With an arch of their backs they dive deep, seeking out capelin beyond counting, fish needed in huge quantities to accumulate the thick layers of fat that will sustain them in the waters off Dominica, until they return to these cold northern shores next year.  And as they dive they wave their tails, bidding farewell to their spellbound acolytes.

As they dive they wave their tales, bidding farewell to their spellbound acolytes

It is a truly extraordinary hour, one of the best wildlife watching experiences of our lives.  In several respects The Island hasn’t quite lived up to our expectations, but the whale watching has surpassed anything we had imagined.  This, above all else, is the memory of Newfoundland that will stay with us.

Whale song

Reflections on the fate of the whale, UK, August 2017

One of the unexpected delights of Newfoundland is its thriving folk music tradition.  Much of this has a Celtic flavour, reflecting the strong connection between The Island and Ireland.  Interestingly many of the locals have a slight Irish lilt to their accents, though in some cases it’s much more pronounced than this and you could believe you were in Dublin or Cork or Kilkenny or wherever.

Some come so close we can almost touch them

We picked up a few CDs during the trip, but couldn’t play them until we got home. Our car, a Chevy Cruze, was great to drive with lots of high tech features, but despite this (or perhaps because of it) there was no CD player!  The first CD I tried when we got home was by a well-known Newfoundland folk band, The Irish Descendants.  The lyrics of one of the songs, the Last of the Great Whales, brought a lump to the throat, not least because of all brilliant humpback encounters we enjoyed during our trip.  The song is written by Andy Barnes, from Milton Keynes in the UK, and goes as follows:

My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding
My heart it has been rent and I am crying
All the beauty around me fades and I am screaming
I am the last of the great whales and I am dying

Last night I heard the cry of my last companion
The roar of the harpoon gun and then I was alone
I thought of the days gone by when we were thousands
But I know that I soon must die the last leviathan

This morning the sun did rise Crimson in the sky
The ice was the colour of blood and the winds they did sigh
I rose for to take a breath it was my last one
From a gun came the roar of death and now I am done

Oh now that we are all gone there's no more hunting
The big fellow is no more it's no use lamenting
What race will be next in line? All for the slaughter
The elephant or the cod or your sons and daughters

My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding
My heart it has been rent and I am crying
All the beauty around me fades and I am screaming
I am the last of the great whales and I am dying

Poignant, n’est pas?   I can’t trace on YouTube a recording of the Irish Descendants singing this song, but here’s a link to an excellent version performed by Celtic Crossroads. Though the whale has been saved for now, for me the lyrics capture with devastating clarity the nature and scale of the wrong that has been done to these gentle creatures throughout the ages.  Let’s hope that Andy Barnes will be proved incorrect in his gloomy prophecy.

The whale watching surpassed anything we had imagined.  This, above all else, is the memory of Newfoundland that will stay with us

The Devil is back! – Conservation programme enters new territory

The Tasmanian Devil is the world’s largest surviving marsupial predator. Once common throughout Australia, for thousands of years these iconic animals have been confined to the island of Tasmania. But even there they are now in big trouble due to a killer cancer known as Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). Conservation groups have been working tirelessly to protect the species, and a few weeks ago news began to circulate of a ground-breaking reintroduction programme in mainland Australia. The Devil is back!

* * *

Exactly four years ago we were at the start of our first and only visit to Australia. At the heart of our adventure was a road trip through Tasmania, where we spent five blissful weeks feasting our eyes on magnificent scenery and feisty wildlife. And the wildlife doesn’t come any feistier than the Tasmanian Devil, the island’s iconic marsupial predator.

tasmania-devilscradle-2016-16

Tasmanian Devil at the Devils@Cradle Sanctuary, November 2016

As well as visiting sanctuaries that are part of the captive breeding programme, we were privileged to see some truly wild Devils at the Mountain Valley Private Nature Reserve run by Len and Pat Doherty. Here’s how I described the experience in my blog of our Tasmanian road trip.

We are back in our cabins when Len arrives with a bucket full of chopped up wallaby, roadkill that is about to be recycled.  He spreads the meat about outside our cabin window.  A light on the porch means that lumps of flesh are illuminated and clearly visible from the cabin.  We settle down and wait for the action to begin. 

And wait … and wait.

At midnight we reluctantly decide to give up. Our quarry isn’t going to show tonight and, disappointed, we stumble off to bed.  However we leave the outside light on, and a floor-to-ceiling window means I can see the feeding area while laying in bed.

I’m soon asleep, but at 1.15am I wake up with a start.  Rubbing the sleep from my eyes I peer outside, and to my amazement glimpse the unmistakeable sight a Devil tucking into chopped up roadkill.

I nudge Mrs P, who is snoring softly in my ear’ole. “Devil,” I whisper urgently, “Devil!”

She grunts, but otherwise doesn’t respond.

“No, I’m not joking, there’s a Devil outside,” I say again, nudging her harder this time.

At last, it sinks in. Now she’s awake, creeping from the bed, groping silently in the dark for her camera. The light outside the cabin isn’t great for taking photos and flash is out of the question, but Mrs P does the best she can:

Encounter with the Devil: 1:15am, 23 November 2016

We watch, captivated, for about 15 minutes as the Devil systematically works his way through about 20 pieces of chopped up wallaby. Devils can eat 40% of their own bodyweight in a single night, so this is no more than a light snack.

The window is closed, of course. It’s bloody cold outside, and for that matter we’re bloody cold inside, halfway up a mountain in an unheated log cabin, clad only in our nightwear! But we ignore the discomfort, transfixed by the action just outside our window. And as we listen we can clearly hear our diabolical guest crunching ravenously on the bones, which he gobbles down together with the gory lumps of wallaby 

The next evening, the same thing happens. We go to bed at midnight and I’m woken shortly after 1:00am … only this time there are two Devils rather than just one.  They bicker and snarl at one another, battling over the spoils.

The light’s not great and flash is out of the question, but who cares? What an experience!

On the final evening of our stay at Mountain Valley three Devils turn up, thankfully a little earlier this time. We only ever see two at any one time, but we know there are three individuals as their size and white markings vary.

Again we relish watching the animals interact as they squabble, hurling abuse and grappling with one another over prime feeding rights.  They are feisty little things, and it’s great to see them going about their business blissfully unaware that every snap and snarl is being scrutinised.

* * *

Devils disappeared from mainland Australia around 3,000 years ago. The reasons are thought to be the introduction of dingoes, as well as other human activity and an increasingly arid climate. However they hung on in Tasmania, where there are no dingoes and the climate is more temperate.

When Europeans arrived in Tasmania they encountered a healthy population of Devils, which they named for their unearthly screams, snarls and growls. But peaceful co-existence between settlers and the Devils quickly proved impossible.

Sheep farming was big business amongst the settlers, and – although scavenging is their preferred way of getting a meal – the Devils were identified as sheep killers. Persecution followed, and Devil numbers plummeted.

Tasmanian Devil at the Devils@Cradle Wildlife Sanctuary, November 2016

Devils became very rare, and were seemingly heading for extinction. But in June 1941 they were given legal protection, and for the next 55 years numbers gradually recovered.

However in 1996 it became evident that the animals were again under threat, this time from Devil Facial Tumour Disease. DFTD is characterised by cancers, generally around the mouth and head. It is invariably fatal, and has resulted in a huge decline in Devil numbers.

In recent years the Tasmanian government has invested heavily in its Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, which includes advocacy, annual monitoring, captive breeding and active management of wild, disease-free populations on Maria Island and the Forestier-Tasman Peninsula.

* * *

Meanwhile, back on mainland Australia the conservation organisation Aussie Ark has been building an “insurance population” of Devils. It says

To date, more than 390 devils have been born and raised at Aussie Ark in a way that fosters natural behaviour in the animals, preparing them for release into the wild. Aussie Arks ‘Rewild Australia’ strategy is a key component, alongside Species and habitat recovery, in returning Australia to it pre-European state.

Aussie Ark website, retrieved 27 October 2020

During 2020 Aussie Ark have released 26 Devils into a 400-hectare (1,000-acre) sanctuary at Barrington Tops, around 120 miles north of Sydney in New South Wales. The animals won’t be living a completely wild existence: they will be confined within the boundaries of the sanctuary and receive supplementary feeding. Researchers will monitor them by remote cameras to learn more about how they adjust in their new environment.

However the long-term aim of the programme is to release Devils into targeted, non-protected areas in mainland Australia. Here it’s hoped they will contribute to keeping feral cat and fox populations under control, and thereby help protect native wildlife.

Tasmanian Devil at the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, November 2016

This is a bold, ambitious programme, and has been compared with the project to return wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the USA. Over the past 12 months the wildlife news from Australia has been bleak, dominated by the huge losses that resulted from the devastating bushfires, so it was great to come across this inspiring good news story.

Having been privileged to see Tasmanian Devils in the wild, they will always have a special place in my heart. Let’s hope Aussie Ark’s project is successful, and they quickly make themselves at home on the mainland.

The bear facts – watching grizzlies in Yellowstone

Grizzly bears are amongst Yellowstone National Park’s most iconic residents. With our wildlife watching in the UK and beyond currently limited by Covid-19, this post looks back on two grizzly encounters in September 2018.

The power and the glory

Americans have a complicated relationship with bears. On the one hand bears are the big, bad bogie beasts of the woods, creatures to be feared, shunned and if possible shot, stuffed and displayed somewhere prominent. On the other hand, the locals are in love with the power and the glory of these fearless beings, in awe of the magnificent apex predators with which they share the continent.

Most visitors to Yellowstone National Park want to see bears. Many – like the Platypus Man and Mrs P – are desperate to witness their undeniable majesty at close quarters. Bears are undoubtedly one of the most charismatic species living in the Park.

In the early days of Yellowstone National Park, the public’s desire to get up close and personal with both grizzly and black bears was fulfilled by allowing park visitors to feed them. While this satisfied the primeval urge for an ursine selfie, it did neither party much good. Bears that are fed quickly become dependent on man, and cease to be truly wild. They are also more likely to become aggressive towards humans if they expect to be fed but aren’t.

Above all, bears that are fed lose all caution in the presence of humans, which could easily become – quite literally – a fatal error for one side or the other. Equally, humans who see bears as reliant on their handouts fail to appreciate their true magnificence.

And to make matters worse, in the early days of the Park, waste food and other rubbish from the Park’s hotels was thrown into open garbage dumps. Naturally the bears were attracted to forage at these, and pretty soon watching them do so became a major visitor attraction in the Park. To avoid disappointment the dumps were topped up with tasty goodies, and an armed ranger was posted close to them to sort out any animal that became unacceptably arsey.

In all these ways the National Park was complicit in turning bears into performing animals in an open-air circus. For more on the history of bear feeding in Yellowstone, and some sickening photos, follow this link to the Yellowstone Insider website.

America as a society is built on the philosophy of giving the customer what he or she wants, so it was a brave decision by the National Park authorities exactly fifty years ago – in 1970 – to end the feeding of bears. In addition, more appropriate means of rubbish disposal were introduced, including the now-familiar bear-proof trash can.

With these changes, bears and humans in the Park could at last enter into a more equal relationship with one another. Seeing bears in Yellowstone is more challenging these days than it previously was, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that any bear successfully spotted is living out a natural and dignified life.

Bears remain dangerous, and the Park authorities are happy to remind visitors of this at every opportunity. It’s not, of course, good for business to have your customers mauled by the wildlife, and with this in mind the National Park has a rule that at least 100 yards (91 metres) must separate humans and bears at all times. As well as protecting the tourists, this also protects bears from unnecessary disturbance. Park rangers – bless ‘em all, I say – get very edgy if they see the 100 yards rule being broken, as we are soon to discover.

We’re way too close, but are we bothered?

It’s early morning. We’re driving though a forested area of the Park, pine trees huddled close to the road. We round a bend and see a number of cars stopped at the roadside with hazard lights flashing, and groups of people peering excitedly into the undergrowth. This can only mean one thing: wildlife, and probably something special.

I pull up, and Mrs P asks a guy what’s going on. Grizzlies, he replies breathlessly, grinning like a maniac. We’re out of the car in a flash, so quick that I forget to turn off the engine, something I don’t discover until we go to drive away more than half an hour later.

The road is built on a slight rise, and we go slip-sliding down the slope to join a couple of dozen other watchers spread out amongst the trees. Everyone’s trying to stay safe, crouching low and peering from behind reassuringly sturdy tree trunks to get a decent view.

A little way ahead is a small clearing littered with fallen trees. Rooting around in the grass, digging energetically, is a huge momma bear. Close by is a “teenage” cub, almost as big as her, and back to the right hidden at the edge of the tree-line, is its more nervous sibling.

Momma must know we’re here. Bears don’t have great eyesight but make up for this deficiency with an excellent sense of smell. All these frantic, sweaty bear-watchers must whiff a bit, affronting her super-sensitive nose. But even though we’re well inside the 100 yards exclusion zone, she’s not a bit bothered. She’s focussed completely on digging up her breakfast, although whether this is roots or grubs we can’t be sure .

The first cub also knows we’re here and is plainly a bit anxious, but hunger gets the better of him and he too digs like crazy. Only the second cub remains wary, watching from the safety of the trees, going hungry while momma and brother tuck in ravenously.

This is the best, closest view we’ve ever had of grizzly bears, and Mrs P’s camera is in overdrive, the shutter a blur as she takes shot after shot. It’s the chance of a lifetime, and she’s not going to miss it.

Suddenly there’s a commotion behind us. A ranger has arrived, glowing with self-importance. He does a quick calculation. “The bear is 41 yards from the road, and you’re all even closer to it than that. Therefore, you are all too close. GET BACK at once.”

He’s right of course. I reckon we are maybe 30 yards away from momma, and a number of folk are a bit closer than us. She’s not in the least bit worried, but rules are rules. After a brief pause the assembled bear-watchers start doing what they’ve been ordered to do…but very, very slowly and with as much bad grace as they can muster

By the time we get back to the road there’s a full-scale bear jam in progress, cars parked every which way, people milling around, desperately hoping the ranger will bugger off and annoy someone else instead. He doesn’t, and worse still, reinforcements have arrived, some of them armed with rifles “just in case.”

Another ranger is busily putting cones out on the road, making it abundantly clear that nobody is allowed to park in this vicinity for the foreseeable future. But we’re not bothered – we enjoyed half an hour of uninterrupted bear watching before the ranger rained on our parade, so we return to the car with a spring in our step. You can’t plan for an encounter like this, and it’s been brilliant.

You can enjoy the action highlights by following the link below to my short YouTube video (2 minutes).

A park ranger’s mission

Another day, another bear. Once again, as we’re driving along and minding our own business, we see cars parked where they shouldn’t be. It’s an obvious clue that something interesting is occurring in the neighbourhood.

I pull off the road where it’s safe, and we make our way down towards a parking lot a few hundred yards away where there’s a throng of people pointing cameras and scopes into an area of fallen logs and dead trees. Someone tells us that a female grizzly bear has been seen in this area over the last two or three days, and judging by all the activity she’s back again.

As we get closer we see that the people are all standing behind a line of traffic cones at the entrance to the parking lot which is, in effect, closed for business.

It’s a park ranger’s mission in life to ensure that no tourist ever gets closer than 100 yards to a bear, and they attack the task with gusto. When some brave soul tries to edge beyond the cones, a stern lady ranger warns him darkly about the dangers of crossing the line. He stays put, probably recognising that this young madam is a lot fiercer than any bear he’s likely to see today.

The rangers are out in force, and while madam is keeping the crowds under control, one of her colleagues is trying to locate the bear with his telescope. This place is a tree graveyard, charred trunks standing as silent witnesses to a forest fire that ripped through here a few years ago. 

Finally, the ranger confirms that he has the grizzly in his sights and tells everyone which tree she’s hiding behind. She’s some distance away, and we never get a really clear view of her. However, we can see she’s in good condition. She has a large hump on her back which, in grizzlies, is the tell-tale sign of a well-fed animal.

Everyone is captivated as she works her way between the burnt and fallen trunks. She’s snuffling around carefully, presumably searching for food, and soon disappears into a gully which totally hides her from view. The show’s over, and the viewers walk happily back to their cars, pick-up trucks and RVs, content that they’ve seen one of Yellowstone’s iconic animals.

* * *

This post first appeared, in a slightly different form, in my 2018 blog describing a 24 days-long return road trip from Denver to Yellowstone National Park in 2018. During our adventure, which also took in – amongst other things – Glacier National Park, Utah’s Antelope State Park and an excursion on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, we saw lots of wonderful wildlife, including our first ever view of wolves. To read about our road trip, follow this link.

To learn a little more about grizzly bear conservation in the Lower 48, click here.

Reflections on World Penguin Day

What is it about penguins? Everyone loves a penguin. Who can look at a penguin for more than a couple of seconds without chuckling, or shaking their head in admiration? I guess part of the reason could be that, walking upright, they remind us of ourselves, becoming avian caricatures of waddling human determination. Or is it their lifestyle that appeals, their battle with the elements, their ability to survive and thrive in huge, crashing seas and monstrous, crushing cold?

Penguins: cultural icons, and very tasty chocolate-covered biscuits! P..P..Pick up a Penguin!

Whatever the reason, penguins are deeply embedded within our culture, loved by wildlife enthusiasts, writers of children’s books, makers of animated movies, and marketing men the world over.

And, of course, biscuit-loving Brits. In the UK, Penguin biscuits, or cookies as our American cousins would describe them, are a popular, chocolatey treat. For decades the McVities marketing department has urged us to P..P..Pick up a Penguin, and we’ve obliged … in our millions!

So, given their status as cultural icons, it’s no surprise that penguins have been granted their own “World Day” on the 25th of April every year, to celebrate their lives and to raise awareness of their conservation needs.

The world is home to somewhere between 17 and 20 species of penguin today (typically, the scientists can’t make up their minds!), the majority of which are on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species. Over the years Mrs P and I have been lucky enough to see four penguin species in the wild. However we’ve never seen them against a background of ice and snow, an indication that the shared cultural image of penguins in a frozen landscape is too simplistic.

In fact, our very first sighting of a wild penguin was on the Galápagos Islands, within spitting distance of the equator. The Galápagos Penguin is one of the world’s rarest – the rarest according to Wikipedia, although other sources disagree – and the only one to venture into the northern hemisphere. It survives in tropical waters thanks only to the cooling Humboldt and Cromwell currents, and in an El Niño year – when the water warms up – the population comes under threat.

Galapagos Penguin: 48 cm tall, weight around 5.5lbs

During the 1982/83 El Niño numbers fell by around 77%, and although there has been some recovery since then, according to the WWF the total world population remains below 2,000 individuals. Mrs P and I were privileged to visit Galápagos in 1989, and had the extraordinary experience of swimming alongside penguins in a remote, beautiful bay.

*

It would be 27 years before we’d see wild penguins again, this time in Tasmania. The Little Penguin goes by various other names, including Fairy Penguin in Australia and Little Blue Penguin in New Zealand. The names are a clue to the bird’s defining characteristics – at 33 cm in height it’s the smallest of all penguin species (the Galápagos Penguin is the second smallest), and its plumage is a distinctive slaty-blue colour.

Colonies of Little Blues exist along the southern coast of Australia, and all around the coast of New Zealand. By comparison with the Galápagos Penguin these birds are plentiful, with numbers estimated in 2011 at between 350,000 to 600,000. However they are in decline, and are particularly vulnerable in their mainland breeding grounds. On uninhabited offshore islands they fare better.

Our best penguin encounter in Tasmania was in the northern town of Stanley where we were, quite literally, almost tripping over and driving round them as they clambered out of the sea to return to their burrows under cover of darkness. You can read about this very special evening here, in my blog of our epic Tasmanian adventure.

On reflection, the behaviour of the Little Blues in Stanley highlights their vulnerability in areas settled or visited by humans. Many of their burrows are some way inland, sometimes in the gardens of local residents, and the daily journey to and from them is fraught with perils. These include marauding dogs, sneaky cats and speeding cars. All things considered, it’s a tough life, being a Little Blue and living on mainland Australia and New Zealand!

*

Our 2019 trip to New Zealand was timed to maximise the chance of seeing the Fiordland Crested Penguin, which is endemic to the country and breeds in small colonies on inaccessible headlands and islets along the shores of south-western South Island, and all around Stewart Island. They nest in rock crevices or hollows beneath tree roots in coastal forests. Eggs are laid in late August, and hatch after a period of 32 – 35 days. Two eggs are laid, but typically only one per clutch will hatch.

A Fiordland Crested Penguin makes landfall!

Chicks are guarded by the male and fed by the female for the first three weeks, at which point they are left unattended and typically form small crèches. Both parents continue to feed the chick(s) until they fledge at around 75 days old in late November or early December.

Mrs P and I were pleased to see Fiordland Crested Penguins on several occasions, on land and occasionally swimming offshore. Our best view was courtesy of an experienced wildlife guide, who led us on a tortuous trek through the bush, fording a stream on several occasions, until we reached a secluded bay where we could watch the comings and goings of the parent birds.

A Fiordland Crested Penguin returns to the ocean, grubby from its overland journey

Upon making landfall the birds preened themselves carefully and checked their surroundings for potential predators, then set off on their journey, trudging stoically inland. Standing around 71 cm tall, they are more than twice the size of Little Blues. When walking their posture is stooped, like that of an old man hunched over his walking stick, but although they look ungainly and uncomfortable Fiordland Crested Penguins can make steady progress on land.

Pretty soon the penguins we’d been watching reached the spot where the beach ends, and the hillside begins. Then, like intrepid mountaineers, they began to climb the steep slope along a well-worn track. As they did so they passed other birds that were making their way back down from the crèche site to the sea after feeding their chicks. The constant coming-and-going was hypnotic, and we watched spell-bound for around 90 minutes until it was time for us to leave. You can read more about this, one of our best birding experiences ever, in this post from my New Zealand blog.

The Fiordland Crested Penguin walks with a distinctive stooped posture

The current population level is unclear; surveys in the 1990s counted 2,500 pairs of Fiordland Crested Penguins, though this was likely an underestimate. However numbers are believed to be declining due to human disturbance, predation by introduced mammals such as dogs, cats, rats and stoats, and fishing industry by-catch. The species is classed as vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN, and New Zealand’s own Department of Conservation changed its status from vulnerable to endangered in 2013.

*

New Zealand’s third, and rarest, penguin is the Yellow-eyed. In 2018/19 there were only 225 breeding pairs on mainland South Island, the lowest level since 1991 Most sources – although not Wikipedia – regard it as the world’s rarest penguin.

Perhaps in response to its plight, the Yellow-eyed Penguin has recently achieved celebrity status by being voted New Zealand’s 2019 Bird of the Year in a poll organised by the conservation organisation Forest & Bird. It’s the first time in the poll’s 14 year history that a seabird has emerged victorious, and the fact that a penguin is the first to break through the glass ceiling is further confirmation of the special appeal of these birds.

A Yellow-eyed Penguin emerges from the sea, dripping like Ursula Andress in that James Bond movie

The Yellow-eyed Penguin is slightly taller than the Fiordland Crested, standing at around 76 cm. It nests in clumps of flax, scrub and forest close to the shore, often in a scrape lined with grasses, against a tree trunk or log. Nests are always hidden away from other nesting pairs, and the bird communicates with a high-pitched scream. They are not very sociable.

The BBC website’s report of the Bird of the Year poll result is headed “Rare anti-social penguin wins New Zealand poll.” I can’t help thinking that Yellow-eyed Penguins came up with the concept of social distancing long before Covid-19 reared its ugly head!

Given its rarity and celebrity status we were very keen to become acquainted with the Yellow-eyed Penguin, and so were delighted to encounter them at a couple of locations on the south-east coast of South Island. Again our best views were achieved courtesy of experienced wildlife guides, and this time we were witnesses to a heart-in-mouth drama.

While the sealion is distracted, this Yellow-eyed Penguin follows a fence-line to return to its chick

At a private reserve on the Otago Peninsula we watched spellbound as a bird emerged from the waves, dripping seductively like Ursula Andress in that James Bond movie, only to find its way blocked by a hungry sealion. It scuttled back to the waves, swam along the beach a little way, then made another landfall.

Again it stopped in its tracks, judging the sealion was too close and too ravenous for safety. Time and again it tried, only to slam quickly into reverse before the sealion gave chase; we watched intently, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. You can read all about it here. SPOILER ALERT: the penguin finally made it safely to the forest, and the sealion went hungry. Phew!

Meanwhile at the other end of the beach another Yellow-eyed Penguin, perhaps seeing that the sealion was distracted, waddled casually up the beach and along a fence-line before disappearing into the bush, giving us outstanding views as it passed. It was the last penguin we would see on our New Zealand odyssey, and a reminder of why these iconic, intrepid, flightless birds have been granted their very own “World Day.”

Why can’t every day be Pancake Day?

Yesterday was Pancake Day. Mrs P and I share the cooking duties at Platypus Towers, but when it comes to pancakes I know my place: I’m a scoffer, not a tosser. Unsurprisingly Mrs P’s pancakes were faultless, and we made short work of them. But now the party’s over it will be months – and quite possibly a whole year – before we have pancakes again. And that’s the problem, isn’t it, with designating just one day per year as Pancake Day? It implies that on the following 364 days (or 365 in 2020, and other leap years) pancakes should be regarded as strictly off-limits.

Pancakes With Strawberry, Blueberries, and Maple Syrup

PHOTO CREDIT: Sidney Troxell via Pexels

For the uninitiated, in England a pancake is a thin, flat cake, made from batter and fried in a frying pan. When one side is cooked the pancake is tossed with a deft flick of the wrist. If the cook is lucky it will land back in the pan, uncooked side down; however if fortune is not smiling, the pancake will end up on the floor, or stuck to the ceiling. A traditional English pancake is very thin and is served coated with lemon or orange juice and caster sugar, or maybe golden syrup.

*

The origin of Pancake Day is religious. The day in question is Shrove Tuesday, immediately preceding the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. In the Christian calendar Lent is a 40 day period of abstinence, when believers are required to give up some of life’s pleasures. Eggs, butter and fat were all on the hit list, and turning them into mouth-watering pancakes on the day before Lent began ensured they did not go to waste.

There is also said to be religious significance in the key ingredients of pancakes. The white milk that loosens the pancake’s batter is seen by some to symbolise purity, while the eggs represent creation and salt stands for wholesomeness. According to this reading the flour symbolises the staff of life, the dietary staple upon which we all rely.

In the USA, France and Germany the day before the start of Lent is known as Mardi Gras. This translates as “Fat Tuesday”, an allusion to the excesses and festivities that are enjoyed on this particular day, before the deprivations of Lent take hold.

tray of hotcakes

PHOTO CREDIT: Mae Mu via Unsplash

Today the connection between Christianity and Pancake Day is rarely acknowledged, and the practice of giving things up for Lent has largely disappeared. However the advance of secularism has done nothing to undermine the habit of bingeing on pancakes one Tuesday in either February or March, exactly 47 days before Easter Sunday.

In a few places in the UK, Pancake Day is celebrated by the holding of a pancake race, which involves herds of eccentrics dashing frantically through the streets, each of them clutching a frying pan in which they toss a cooked pancake. The tradition is said to date from 1445, and results in the lanes of some English villages briefly becoming clogged with more than the usual number of lycra-clad tossers. However the disruption is tolerated with good humour as everyone knows that afterwards pancakes will be off the menu for around 12 months.

*

In the USA, however, they do it differently. Pancakes are a big deal in the Big Apple, and everywhere else too. Every day is Pancake Day in the good old US of A.

In the same way that American and Brits are no more than distant cousins these days, their pancakes are also very different. The version from the other side of The Pond is fluffy rather than flat, using self-raising flour or baking power to get a rise from the batter. In the USA pancakes are traditionally served in a stack, accompanied by a little jug of maple syrup and, if it takes your fancy, with a few rashers of crispy bacon on the side.

And, joy of joys, Americans have pancakes for breakfast.

I remember vividly our first encounter with a “short stack” of American pancakes. The previous evening we’d flown into Rapid City via Minneapolis, and had spent the night in a grotty motel that numbered cockroaches amongst its other guests. The next morning we staggered into the adjacent diner, with expectations at an all time low.

pancakes on palte

PHOTO CREDIT: Luke Pennystan via Unsplash

It was a modest diner, as befitting its location on the outskirts of a memorably unmemorable city. And yet, to our amazement, they were serving pancakes. Now at the time I was just an innocent English guy, a first time visitor to the States, and the prospect of eating something so deliciously, decadently sweet that early in the day had me transfixed. America is amazing, I thought to myself. Americans are amazing. They play by different rules here. I love this country.

The menu sported a fabulous photo of a stack of pancakes, topped off with summer fruits and wallowing in an ocean of maple syrup. They looked irresistible, so I did the honourable thing and resolutely refused to resist them.

And thus began my love affair with pancakes for breakfast. In the years that followed I’ve visited the USA more than 20 times, and have rarely been tempted to try anything else. OK, I will confess that once or twice I’ve fallen under the spell of the sultry southern temptress that is biscuits and gravy, but pancakes are my first love, my only true love in the crazy world of American breakfasts.

So here’s my question, the big one, the puzzle that’s got me beat. If the USA can do it, why the hell can’t we? Here, in England, why can’t every day be Pancake Day?

Farewell Lady Kaka

Last Friday I said goodbye to a dear friend, my constant companion for the last few months. My life feels empty without her. She’d been with me day in and day out, and in the darkness of the night I’d lie awake thinking about her. We shared so many stories, through the good times and the bad. Together we laughed a lot, and even cried a little when the news came through about White Island. But now we’re finished, and I need to move on.

She wasn’t my first, of course. There were three others before her, and today – as you must know, because you are reading this – I’m with someone else. But for a few brief months we were inseparable.

She was a harsh mistress, always wanting more. Every day she expected me to perform, even when I didn’t feel up to it. I totted it up, and in total we got it together 89 times. Sometimes she let me have a day off, but the next day I had to make amends, to come up with the goods twice in just a few hours.

There were moments when I hated her for her insatiable demands, but mostly I loved her for believing in me and for driving me on to do things I didn’t know I could do. She got under my skin, seduced me, cajoled me and always encouraged me to be the best I could be.

I’m sure most of my friends wondered why I bothered with her at all. I could see it in their eyes, sense the unasked question in their emails, what’s the bloody point, why waste your time locked up with her, glued to your laptop when you could be outside soaking up the rays, or maybe getting rat-arsed in a pub?

And my answer is simple. I wrote a blow-by-blow blog of our visit to New Zealand to prove that I could, to show that there’s still life in this old dog, to demonstrate that intellectual and creative atrophy is not an inevitable consequence of retirement.

Writing a travel blog also allows me – forces me, in fact – to experience things differently. Regardless of the blog I would still have seen the parrots on our porch. But without the imperative to write something that family, friends and followers could relate to it would have been just a fleeting, casual acquaintance, soon to be forgotten. Without my blog I would never have met Lady Kaka. Here’s part of what I wrote about her in early December 2019:

*

She’s perched on the railing that guards the edge of our veranda, or porch as they call it in North America, staring into our room through the full length glass sliding door. I’m looking back out at her, captivated by her audacity. We’re separated by no more than a couple of metres and a sheet of glass. The kaka can see me but is totally un-phased.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1607.jpg

Even when I slide the door open and step closer she’s untroubled, and simply watches me calmly. She doesn’t need reassurance but I offer it anyway, whispering to her, telling her that I find her beautiful and won’t ever harm her. She tips her head to one side quizzically, weighing me up.

I can read her mind. Are you for real? she’s asking. Why do you people always act so weird around me? She’s plainly in charge of this encounter, which is like a thousand other meetings she’s had before with guests occupying our room.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1521.jpg

I, however, haven’t read the script. I’m lost for words, unsure what to do next. Wild birds aren’t meant to be like this. Is she ill? Or mad? Or am I the crazy one, standing here in awe of this kaka, this big parrot with olive grey plumage, yellow sideburns and a bloody enormous bill?

I watch her intently, and she watches me back. It’s a Mexican standoff, and neither of us wants to make the first move. Finally she gets bored – I’ve obviously buggered up the audition – and utters a piercing, eardrum-exploding squawk as she flies off into a nearby tree. Lady Kaka has left the building

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1620.jpg

*

The Platypus Man in New Zealand was my fourth and most ambitious road-trip travel blog. It runs to over 61,000 words spread across 89 posts. Designing it, researching it, writing it, editing it and responding to comments about it has dominated my life for several months. It’s been a deep and meaningful relationship that has changed and developed me in all sorts of ways. But in the manner of most relationships it’s run its course, and now I have someone new in my life.

Now I’m 64 is my new Best Friend Forever, a fresh challenge to keep the brain active and the pulse racing.

So, farewell Lady Kaka, my dear old friend, and thank you for the good times. I promise I won’t ever forget you.

Off to New Zealand

Almost three years after his epic journey to Tasmania the Platypus Man is setting off on his greatest adventure, and quite possibly his last great adventure, a trip of around seven weeks to New Zealand.  The flights, hotels and rental cars are booked, our itinerary is planned and our bags are packed. Watch out you Kiwis, here we come!

PHOTO CREDIT: Body of Water from Pixabay via Pexels

There’s loads to see and do in New Zealand:  We will marvel at its volcanic landscapes and geothermal wonders, and be inspired by its magnificent mountain and coastal scenery.  We will explore the charms of small-town New Zealand, and learn about Maori culture. We will enjoy brilliant views of whales, dolphins and exotic birds.  We will see lots of sheep and drink lots of wine. We will fly business class for the only time in our lives.  We definitely won’t go bungee jumping!

My New Zealand blog is already live on the Internet.  Click here to see what I have to say about the Land of the Long White Cloud.

And while we’re in New Zealand I’ve scheduled weekly posts on this blog covering topics as varied as my love of birdwatching, the magnificence and mud of this year’s British Birdwatching Fair, the dubious pleasure of NHS health checks, the diplomacy of knocking down walls, and the delights of the Beamish Open Air Museum.

Oh, I nearly forgot, there will also be a post on “Keeping the zombies in.” Bet you can’t wait for that one, can you?