Pohatu Penguins: Tourism for a Great Cause

Grab a rental car from Christchurch Airport and head to beautiful Banks Peninsula to meet New Zealand's largest colony of Little Penguins.

Pohatu Penguins
Tourism for a great cause
Akaroa, on Banks Peninsula in Canterbury, is pretty special. It is a stunningly beautiful part of New Zealand, set in a tranquil harbour, with a unique history. In the 1800s, Akaroa was to be the centre of a French Colony in New Zealand. Fifty-three hopeful French emigrants set sail for Akaroa Harbour aboard the ship Comte de Paris. By the time they arrived, the Treaty of Waitangi had been signed, and the Union Jack was flying at Akaroa. The emigrants stayed, and their influence lives on in the street names and architecture of Akaroa Village.
Today, Banks Peninsula is home to a different type of colony. Flea Bay, twenty minutes’ drive from Akaroa, is where you will find the largest Little Penguin Colony on mainland New Zealand. To be exact, the penguins here are known as White-Flippered, Canterbury’s own variant of the Australasian Little Penguin species. Landowners Shireen and Francis Helps have spent 30 years running a conservation programme here, which includes predator protection, monitoring, and rehabilitating injured birds.
For this trip, my family opted for a 24 hour Pohatu Package. This meant starting in Christchurch with a hire car at Christchurch Airport. It’s an easy drive of around an hour and a half to Akaroa. Pohatu staff met us at the Information Centre in Akaroa, organising a safe place to leave our rental car, when we transferred to their van for the trip to Flea Bay.
After passing over one of the highest passes on Banks Peninsula, we left the van to walk the rest of the way to Flea Bay, through the Tutakakahikura Scenic reserve. This was a gentle two and a half hour walk, mostly downhill and shaded, past towering waterfalls which cascade over ancient lava flows, and head to the sea. We followed in the same direction, eventually arriving at the humble farm cottage which will be our accommodation for the night.
The rest of the day was ours to just enjoy and relax.  We headed to the windswept beach to dip our toes in the somewhat chilly water, and wait until evening for our penguin viewing.
With darkness, we set off to the main farm homestead. Outside were friendly sheep and lambs for cuddles. Pohatu staff tended to a couple of rescued penguins who are being rehabilitated on the farm. ‘Dizzy’ was blind, with a gammy leg, who had been picked up on New Brighton Beach in Christchurch.
“She can’t be returned to the wild,” our guide told us, “as she can’t hunt. Hopefully she can go somewhere like the Antarctic Centre is Christchurch.”
Francis Helps gave us a talk about their work, and the penguins. There are several places in Australasia where penguins can be observed coming ashore – Phillip Island in Victoria is an example – where the penguins are watched by hundreds of people every night. The beauty of Pohatu is that this is low impact tourism. Just the handful of us on the tour trooped after Francis across the rugged paddocks to find quiet places to watch without disturbing the shy visitors. With the help of binoculars we could identify groups of penguins heading into the bay.
“They will stay on the shore until it gets completely dark,” Francis said, “then head higher up to their burrows and chicks.”
In turn, we made our way back to the cottage through the dark, ready for hot chocolate and bed, feeling that we’d been part of something special.
Carolyn Cossey is a Content Writer for VroomVroomVroom.co.nz – the leader in car rental comparison in New Zealand, Australia and around the globe. She loves to hunt out special parts of the world for adventures, usually with her two children along for the ride.