New Zealand, February 2011

Mar 2011

By: Laura Crawford Williams

New Zealand is a country of stunning and diverse natural beauty: rugged mountains, tall fiords, pristine lakes, raging rivers, pristine beaches, and active volcanic features. It also holds some of the most unique flora and fauna in the world. German and I were lucky to have visited New Zealand this February. We did a little scouting for future Frontera trips, visited with family friends, and of course did a little photography.

We flew from Los Angeles to Wellington and then took the Interislander Ferry to the South Island. For the first 8 days we simply drove through the country exploring places like Kaikoura, Christchurch, Hokitika, Fox Glacier, Queenstown, and Milford Sound. (We were in Christchurch only 7 days before their latest earthquake and later learned that the hotel we stayed in was destroyed. We are so very sad for the tragedy experienced by this beautiful city.)

I think Kaikoura, a quaint little town on the eastern coast, was my favorite location during this part of the trip. Although the weather was awful and our whale watching adventure was cancelled, we were able to photograph sea birds in the rain on the north side of the peninsula. There were Wandering, Royal, Salvin’s, White-capped, Buller’s, and Northern Albatross. We also saw Northern Giant Petrels, White-chinned and Westland Petrels, Cape Pigeons, as well as Red-billed and Black-backed Gulls. The low rolling hills at sunrise made for beautiful photographic backgrounds.

During our last week in New Zealand we visited friends that manage a sheep ranch in Moeraki, a small fishing village on the east coast. We spent most of our last days exploring the coastline along this property. While shooting from a blind we photographed New Zealand Fur Seals, Bronze phase Stewart Island Shag, and black phase Variable Oystercatchers.

The most exciting subjects were the Yellow-eyed Penguins. We couldn’t help but laugh as they humorously slid up the pebble beach when emerging from the water. Once out of the water, they shuffled up a well-worn path and stopped to preen before heading into thick forest and brush. Yellow-eyed penguins are an endangered species. Their numbers are declining because of food shortages, loss of breeding habitat, predation by introduced mammals, and gill net entanglement. The numbers hover at an estimated 2,000 breeding pairs.

On our last afternoon in the field, we were given a departing surprise. As we waited in our blind, a large grey form came lumbering out of the surf. As the shape moved closer, it became clear that this was a male Southern Elephant Seal. He had big eyes and a large arched nose. I’ve photographed Elephant Seals in Argentina, but this one was bigger and coming much closer. Because the back of the blind was partly open, he was watching us carefully. With each incoming wave he pushed farther on shore, raising his head and showing his teeth.

As he moved nearer, I’ll admit I became nervous. There were no females, but it was breeding season in Argentina and we didn’t know how aggressive he might be. Unfortunately, the only way for us to get out of the cove was to move up the bank directly in front of him. These guys are big but I’ve seen them move very fast. Despite his happy looking face and big bright eyes, we decided to stay very low and still. Eventually, the sun began to set and we had no choice but to make our way toward him. I moved first, crawling very low and slowly. (It was very nice of German to agree to be “the bait” if there was any problem.) I made it about 4 feet when this huge animal turned and ran directly back into the water. I don’t think my 120 lbs. have ever scared something so large.

The moral of the story: half the battle for interesting pictures is patience and just being there.