CURIO BAY (New Zealand), June 24 – The sky was still clear but not for much longer. Twilight encroached. And no sight of our elusive feathered friend yet.
We were in Curio Bay, an alcove in the heart of New Zealand’s Southlands. The rugged coastal shoreline was picturesque but also otherworldly; even with our feet firmly on dry land, we felt transported to a distant realm.
No one would expect less from the country where Peter Jackson filmed The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It really is Middle-earth.
A few others, mostly tourists but also a couple of local volunteers, had joined us for the same purpose: to see the rare yellow-eyed penguins coming back from the sea. There was no guarantee of sighting but we were very happy. ‘eternal optimists.
Indeed, we had been driving all day from Dunedin and now we were finally there. After parking our car, we headed up the hill where the lookout was. Here you could see the entirety of Curio Bay.
We didn’t know that beneath the waves there was a fantasy frozen in time.
What a spectacle greeted us when we looked down! A stoned lava field, from a forgotten age of violent volcanoes? Or something from the land of Mordor, with vicious orcs waiting to pounce and trap unsuspecting hobbits … and humans?
But no. The obsidian landscape in front of us was actually a petrified forest revealed at low tide.
What curiosity! How could it have been alive in the past?
Yet it was not a fairy tale. These were truly the fossilized remains of ancient trees and even ferns from the Middle Jurassic, 180 million years ago. More lives than we could imagine.
As the sea eroded the surface sandstone layers, the preserved tree trunks and fern fronds – since turned from wood to rock – were slowly exposed. There is no chemistry more powerful than time itself.
At low tide, amidst petrified tree trunks, we spotted signs of newer life underwater: tiny strands of seaweed and larger strings of kelp, occasional green “blossoms” of seaweed. , shells and barnacles. The forest may have died millennia ago, but life still thrives there.
The cries of cormorants and seagulls pierce the silence of Curio Bay as we continue to walk.
A nice gentleman, one of the volunteers, told us to love exploring but to be careful when we climbed the slippery rocks. To respect the demarcated areas for our safety but also to avoid scaring the penguins when they disembark.
These endangered yellow-eyed penguins (also known as Hoiho in Maori) are among the rarest in the world. Only about 6000-7000 birds nest here and they are extremely shy, so we had to stay away.
The helpful volunteer told us that he is a retiree and enjoys sharing the colorful history and splendor of the local reserve with visitors. Nature at its wildest and best, he thought.
The penguins usually left the nest early in the morning, he added, to fish and feed. They would only come back in the evening. Therefore, while some of the visitors had left after refueling the Petrified Forest, a small number remained.
We were all hoping to see a Hoiho.
Later the volunteer whispered to us where the best place to wait was: not near the water but further inland. Penguins never jump out of the water where you expect them to, but it was a good guess based on her experience.
Then, as the sun was beginning to set, the one we had all been waiting for made its grand appearance, as awkward and ugly on land as it was graceful on the sea.
Everyone was silent so as not to frighten him; we were all amazed to see an endangered species in its natural habitat. A survivor, this one.
The whole experience seemed unreal, like a scene from a movie. It seemed almost the reverse of that infamous (and now iconic) scene from Zack Snyder Justice League, where Aquaman left his chat with Bruce Wayne by wading through the cold waters of the sea as an impromptu Icelandic choir of villagers took to singing.
Here now, on the other side of the world, was a motley team of tourists and volunteers eagerly waiting for the penguins to emerge from the cold waters of the sea. No songs flying away but we all do our best to stifling our gasps of excitement, barely hiding our joy.
It is to say this has been a scene from a movie, although it was one of our accomplishments, that had been playing in our minds for days, weeks, or months before that precise moment.
There was no Jason Momoa, no rippling muscles or mean tattoos, of course. But bewitching all the same.
Sometimes we just need what we prayed for, for the penguin we had been waiting for all evening to finally appear, jumping over the rocks like a little miracle.
Sometimes all we need is hope.
the jurassic park character quote Dr Ian Malcom – “Life Finds A Way” – is true here. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that Nature is also trying to get over it. And the memory of us that night in Curio Bay, witnessing the walk of this lonely penguin, also feels like a sort of recovery.
The sea and the sand. The stone forest. The penguin and the silence in its wake. The feeling of calm and healing of our souls.
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