4 Apr 2024

A tale of two islands – erect-crested penguins

From Voice of Tangaroa, 5:00 am on 4 April 2024
A dozen black-and-white penguins with yellow eyebrows and orange bills attempting to swim through whitewash. Some have flippers outstretched; others crane their necks out of the churning ocean.

A raft of erect-crested penguins make the bull-rush to shore on Proclamation Island, part of the Bounty Island group. Photo: © Richard Robinson

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The Bounty Islands jut out of the water like giant granite fins. Steep and sheer, with no greenery in sight. They are covered instead by a mottled white – guano or bird poo from the tens of thousands of penguins and albatrosses that come here to breed.  

The least studied penguin 

The Bounty Islands is one of two remote, subantarctic island groups home to the erect-crested penguin. Stout and handsome, with bright yellow crests that look like elaborate punk rock hairdos, their remote breeding sites means they’ve not been studied in depth.  

But Dr Thomas Mattern of the Tawaki Project plans to change that.  

Good news and bad 

Using drones to make photo mosaics of all the Bounty islands, Thomas has counted each penguin breeding pair and arrived at a number that suggests the Bounty Island population of penguins has remained relatively stable since the mid-1990s. Good news.  

Not the case for their other breeding sites at the Antipodes Islands, where early evidence suggests a significant decline.  

But these island groups are a mere 200 kilometres apart – a hop, skip and a jump in penguin swimming distance. How is one group seemingly doing fine while the other is in trouble?  

New Zealand Geographic’s James Frankham joins an expedition to these remote and wild islands as the scientists begin to unravel this mystery.  

Two men standing on a bare patch of rock look up at a drone hovering above them in a blue sky streaked with grey clouds. Behind them a third person wearing a hood bends over a white bucket next to a backpack and some other equipment. Surrounding the trio is a vast colony of seabirds dotted across the rocks, while some seabirds soar overhead. A small deep blue ocean inlet is visible to the right, where the rock slopes towards the sea.

At the summit of Proclamation Island, part of the Bounty Islands, Otago University scientist Thomas Mattern launches a drone through ‘the albatross layer’ that swarms the island, with Dave Houston acting as an air traffic controller. Mattern (and his daughter Hannah who flew a second drone) took 8,145 photos on 44 white-knuckled flights to map and model the entire island group; data he will use to count every single bird that nests here. Photo: © Richard Robinson

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