Sunday, November 29, 2015


Akaroa Harbor, NZ (May 28, 2008)

We spent the afternoon is absolute calm, walking on the shore of the calm harbor, reading the street posts with french names, sitting by the sea and watching the anchored boats and the far hills losing their shape in the mist on the opposite side of the harbor. The most peaceful sight.

The same pier
Maybe it was indeed an abnormally high tide, rather than an abnormally low pier. This is the same pier that before our boat trip was partially submerged, with a heron happily walking on the line between wet and dry. Upon our return it was perfectly dry, as if it was never touched by the swell. As the sun was getting low (and the sun was setting quite early while we were there, given that it was the beginning of winter), the harbor was getting a golden tint. After a day of fishing, the cormorant in the photo below was spreading its wing, while the lazy seagulls were taking a nap. Apparently cormorants are among the few sea birds that don’t have impermeable wings, and need to dry by spreading them in the sun. We saw several cormorants in this position during the day. It seems that the permeability of their feathers allows them to sink faster when they are fishing, because it avoids air bubbles from being trapped in their wet plumage. Some cormorants can dive as much as 45 meters deep. When I was a kid I remember reading about cormorant fishing in the adventure books of Emilio Salgari (author of Sandokan, the Black Corsair and other exotic heroes). Cormorant fishing has been done for 1,300 years along the Nagara river in China (but also in Japan and Macedonia) by tying a snare at the base of the bird’s neck. As the bird dives to catch a fish, the snare prevents it from swallowing, and the fish is recovered by the bird’s owner when the cormorant returns to the boat. Emilio Salgari was writing of these fantastic tales of pirates and adventurers from the apartment in Torino (the city where I was born), he never left, inspired only by looking at postcards of the exotic locations where he set his fantastic tales.

Akaroa Harbor, NZ (May 28, 2008)

Thursday, November 26, 2015


Akaroa Harbor, NZ (May 28, 2008)

I have been fascinated by the albatross since I read a poem by Baudelaire when I was in high school:

Souvent, pour s’amuser, les hommes d’équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l’azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d’eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.

(see english translation here)

I am fascinated by how the poet was comparing himself with the prince of the sky, so majestic when high in the sky, hindered by its own large wings to live effectively on the ground. So I imagined this large soaring bird many times, but I had never seen one. Until Akaroa, that is, where several of them were flying next to our boat. The guy of the tour said that these were one of the smallest subspecies of albatrosses... they still looked pretty big to me!

Akaroa Harbor, NZ (May 28, 2008)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Meet the Hector Dolphin

Akaroa Harbor, NZ (May 28, 2008)

Just at the entrance of the Akaroa Harbor we say a dolphin approaching the boat. It was a Hector's dolphin. With an adult size of 1.4 meters (about half the size of the other dolphins), it is one of the smallest cetaceans. They are very recognizable for the rounded fin, and the characteristic hump near the blowhole. It is also one of the rarest, with less than 3,000 breeding couples in the all of New Zealand, which is the only place in the world where the Hector’s dolphin lives. The Hector's dolphin is a critically endangered species. The Maui dolphin, which is a subspecies of the hector's dolphin living exclusively in the New Zealand North Island, has only 110 individuals, 25 of which are breeding females, and is the most endangered subspecies of all marine mammals.

Hector dolphin
Hector’s dolphins are very sociable. In fact we knew of the chance of seeing one because the Akaroa boat tour we did was advertising it, and even the possibility of swimming with them. There is at least one company in Akaroa that brings wetsuit-clad tourists in the part of the Harbour where the dolphins live. The dolphins are so used to people that they often approach the swimmers, and play around them. That seems fantastic but it does not surprise me too much, as something similar happened to us in Hawaii. We were kayaking in Maui when a group of dolphins approached and started to swim along. There was even a mother with the calf, and they came really close to us. I still get goose-bumps when I think about it, because being close to dolphins is really a unique experience. It was nice that this Hector dolphin in Akaroa was kind enough to approach the boat and let me take this photo of him.

Akaroa Harbor, NZ (May 28, 2008)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Seals on the Rocks

Akaroa Harbor, NZ (May 28, 2008)

After having seen the penguin, we passed next to a shadowed cliff. We didn’t notice anything particular until we started to hear some weird sounds coming from the rocks. Sounds like somebody was crying... kind of eery. It wasn’t until we covered our eyes from the bright sun and got accustomed watching the darker areas that we saw them. The rocks were full of large, noisy seals that were lazing out the hottest hours of the day (not very hot, actually, it was winter after all) resting at the base of the cliffs. The photo was difficult to take. The cliffs were in the shadow, and I was limited in how much I could expose because the boat was moving quite a lot. Even after opening everything I could, most of the photos still came out blurred. In the end I think this one works, and the one at the bottom, even though I am quite surprised by the color of the rocks in the background. They weren’t looking so red; I am wondering if it is a question of color correction, or this is their natural color...

The one on the left is probably my favorite photo from Akaroa. The sea was rather calm in the harbor, and also in the Pacific Ocean outside. However, these rocks were right at the mouth of the harbor and the currents were playing some weird game creating these huge sprays. So I just waited a little until I got this single shot before the boat was moving out of range. I guess I got lucky, but I like how the veil of water at the bottom of the wave is so dark and thick that hides the sea and the rocks behind, providing a strong contrast with the crown of clear white spray. I just like how the blues and the whites mix well... and how the spray is so sharp (there was enough light around that I could really use a very short exposure). This was just when we were moving out of the harbor to sea the high volcanic cliffs (Akaroa was formed by the collapsed crater of a huge ancient volcano), and just before we got another surprise... but I will let this for the next post...

Akaroa Harbor, NZ (May 28, 2008)

Friday, November 6, 2015

Yellow Eyed Penguin

Akaroa Harbor, NZ (May 28, 2008)

I wish I remember the name of the operators that organized the boat tour in Akaroa Harbor. Because they were good. The people on the boat knew well the area, and brought us in the right place to see the local fauna, without being too pushy, and knowing what species to look for, and where.

Yellow-eyed penguin
This is how we got to see the yellow-eyed penguin. We first approached the part of shoreline where the penguins nest (keeping the right distance) but of course there was none there, because during the day they are out at sea to fish. But while we were getting back at the center of the harbour we saw this little guy (fairly large actually, maybe half meter or more) swimming around. Even though we were relatively far (don’t be fooled by the 200mm lens and the cropped photo, most people with compact cameras just got a few pixels of penguin) he/she wasn’t very happy to see us. From time to time the poor penguin was turning the head around to check what those pesky humans-paparazzi were doing.

The yellow-eyed penguin (Maori name Hoiho) turns out to be quite rare and endangered, with an estimated population of only 4,000, all living in New Zealand. The individual in the photo is a juvenile, lacking the yellow band connecting the eyes on the back. We saw more of these penguins later on in the trip, down in the Catlins.

Akaroa Harbor, NZ (May 28, 2008)

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Heron on a Semi-Submerged Pier

Akaroa Harbor, NZ (May 28, 2008)

As we were waiting for the boat tour, we walked on the shorefront towards a semi-submerged pier populated by birds. Seagulls mostly, but then this nice heron, that didn’t seem at all disturbed by me walking around to take pictures. It was just wading around, right on the water line. When we returned after the boat tour the heron was gone. And the water had disappeared from the pier too... with the low tide the pier was completely dry as if the water had never been there.

Akaroa Harbor, NZ (May 28, 2008)

Monday, November 2, 2015

Akaroa Harbor

Akaroa Harbor, NZ (May 28, 2008)

Mayli’s meeting had different options for the conference excursion. One of them was a visit to Akaroa harbor, which we choose compelled by the description of natural beauty, and the chance of seeing some interesting wildlife.

A boat in Akaroa Harbor
And beautiful it was. Akaroa (“long harbor” in Maori) is set between volcanic hills in the Banks peninsula, South of Christchurch. The main settlement was once called “Port Louise-Philippe”, betraying its french origins. The first settlers were in fact french, which had reached the South Island in 1840. The british, however, were already in New Zealand with their bigger gun-boats, so the french settlers were given the choice of leaving, or staying there and become british subjects. France was a long way away, so they remained, and all is left now of these origins are the french names of the streets. In Akaroa we got on a boat tour of the harbor, which was really worth it, as we saw some quite unique wildlife (more on this in the next few posts), and we didn’t even get wet (you’ll understand this when I will get to tell about Milford Sound many posts ahead). Once back we shared some fish and chips with the local cats, and then got some coffee in the nearby Café. There we met a lovely waitress that turned out to be american. We asked her what she was doing there, and she said that she was hiking through New Zealand but once she got in Akaroa she liked the place so much that she decided there was no point in keep traveling, and she just decided to stay there. And by looking at the calm waters and the peaceful air, that really seemed the reasonable thing to do. Who really would want to leave?

Akaroa Harbor, NZ (May 28, 2008)