As a sailor, the albatross is almost a mythical bird. I have seen them at sea, and when they appear on a watery horizon their strength and size never fails to impress. The albatross colony at Taiaroa Head (Pukekura) is on a Nature Reserve managed by the Department of Conservation, and the Otago Peninsula Trust takes small guided groups up to the observatory to see the nesting birds.

At the carpark at the Westpac Royal Albatross Centre I could see that a lot of time, money and physical effort has gone into protecting the only mainland colony of birds. There is a predator proof fence and pink triangles that show the start of a traplines.

In 1918, the first egg was laid in the area, however, because of predation it took over twenty years for a chick to reach adulthood. Thanks to the efforts of Dr L. E. Richdale, a Dunedin ornithologist, and his dedicated team this albatross colony represents the longest continuous study and protection of any animal population in New Zealand.

The albatross has a wingspan of over there metres. An adult can fly at speeds of up to 120 km an hour, thanks to their ability to dislocate and lock their wings. Two facts that I found intriguing were:

1. The albatross has its own desalination plant – after fledging and learning to fly they circumnavigate Antarctica for three years without returning to land. They actually drink sea water, and a remarkable chamber at the base of their beak filters the salt out of the water and lets it drip down their beak.

2. Once they have grown to adult size the chicks weigh between 10-12kg, however, they need to be between 8-9 kg to fly. After seven months, the dutiful parents (who mate for life) put their not so ‘little one’ on a starvation diet. When the chick gets hungry and skinny enough it literally walks off a cliff (no prior practice) and starts flying to find food.

When going on this tour don’t expect to get ‘Up close and personal’ with the birds. The observatory is perched high on the hill, and when I went the nearest bird was about 20 metres away. There was, however, a live video feed showing a close up of a nest and a chick. I was still in awe of the birds and seeing them tending their nests, waddling along their homemade runways and soaring off over the harbour was (I hate to say it) BREATHTAKING.

If you want to see the hulking balls of fluff easily, the parents leave them on their own and clearly visible from April to August. Although, any time of the year is a great time to visit. Yellow eyed penguins, little blue penguins, seals, sea-lions, cormorants and seagulls also hang out on the head.

Kat, our tour guide in the Westpac Albatross Centre
Adult birds nesting