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Divorces and recoupling on the Otago Peninsula

28 May 2021
Kaitiaki Tautoko (21)
Hiltrun Ratz (left) works on the Otago Peninsula with little blue penguins. Photo: Blue Penguins Pukekura

Dr Hiltrun Ratz works on the Otago Peninsula watching the soap opera that is the Pukekura little blue penguin colony unfold. Full of divorces, recoupling and swearing, she has a busy job with her two-legged friends. This story from our March issue of Style.

I don’t think I’ll ever retire. I think I’ll be hobbling around the little blue penguin colony with my Zimmer frame saying to my colleagues, ‘Oi! Go weigh that one!’ I love it.  

I live about 10 minutes from work at Pilots Beach on the Otago Peninsula. I’m a penguin scientist employed by The Pukekura Trust, a collaboration between The Otago Peninsula Trust and The Korako Karetai Trust.   

In 2016, they were looking for someone to work with the little blue penguins. I was standing in the colony and asked, ‘Any idea how many penguins there are?’ The reply was, ‘Oh about 500.’ I thought, well that will take me a week or two – yeah right. It took me two and a half years to get pretty much all of them. Then I was told there were nesting boxes. I said, ‘Oh good, where?’ and they said, ‘Don’t know, somewhere here. We put numbers on some of them.’ It turned into a treasure hunt. The boxes were either nailed or screwed shut, so I would have to pry them open, see if there were penguins in there, microchip them and then find another box.  

Blue penguins are little parcels of fury really. They are offended when I have to take them out of their box. They are very good at biting because they have sharp edges to their beaks, and they know they have this weapon in the middle of their face. They also scratch, growl and swear at you. The adults are little fury bundles, the chicks aren’t so bad because they haven’t worked out that their beak is a formidable weapon. Fortunately, I’ll only have to bother them once in their life to microchip them.  

Before the start of the breeding season, the female and male sit at home in their box and she says to him, ‘Honey am I fat enough?’ If there is a nice cold ocean, lots of fish and the female is getting nice and fat, they’ll start breeding. And, of course, she is the one that decides because she lays the eggs. She may say, ‘Nah, I’m not fat enough, forget about it.’ But she’ll ask again the next month. 

They usually stick with the same mate, but if the mate disappears or goes off with someone else, she’ll just find someone else. The divorce rate is about 18 per cent and sometimes they even swap partners between clutches! Shortland Street and Coronation Street is nothing compared to what goes on in this little blue penguin colony. It is the best soap you can imagine. ‘Excuse me, this is not your mate from last season, what have you done with him!’ I say to them. 

I talk to them often. They tend to talk back, though we don’t speak the same language and I think they swear at me a lot, but that’s okay.  

I grew fascinated with biology when I was 14. I had an amazing biology teacher in high school. Some teachers give you direction in your life by doing nothing more than just doing their job.  

I just have a sense of wonder in the natural world. I’m sitting here and looking at all these trees and nothing is telling them to grow, and yet they grow. They do it despite everything – it is a miracle. We are surrounded by miracles and we are just taking it for granted. Animals are so resilient and just want to live. It is that spirit of life that I find fascinating. 

As told to Shelley Robinson 

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