On Taiaroa Head, just East of Dunedin, sits the world’s only mainland breeding colony of the Royal Albatross – the largest of all the albatross with a wing span that exceeds 9 feet (3 meters) and weighing in at about 20 pounds (9 kilograms)! Fourteen varieties of Albatross breed in the New Zelaand region, more than anywhere else in the world according to NZ’s department of conservation. Most of the breeding sites are remote and hard to get to, but Taiaroa Head is easily accessible and well managed to ensure the birds are protected.
The Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head studies the albatross, educates the public on them, protects them, and manages tours so that visitors can see them in action without disturbing the nesting sites. They offer a 1.5 hour guided tour that takes you out to the albatross viewing area – tours are limited to 18 people and fill up pretty quickly so book ahead if you don’t want to wait. When we visited, we had to wait about an hour so we spent the time having lunch in the café and visiting the gift shop and small museum.
For the tour, you meet the guide at the main centre and then walk together up a trail to the top of the hill, it’s paved and not a hard hike but it is uphill. The seagulls also nest up here so you’ll spend the whole walk up the hill craning your neck to look up in the air for albatross and scanning the rocks for seagull nests. We didn’t see any albatross on the way up. Once you get to the end of the path there’s a small building with a viewing area across the front part with binoculars and books and there’s a small platform in the middle of the room for those who didn’t get a window. The guide gives you background on the albatross while everyone looks for nests – we were there for about 30 minutes I think and had plenty of time to trade viewing spaces and see the birds.
For most of the time that we were visiting, the albatross were sitting in their nests. We could see them okay with the binoculars but there wasn’t much to see as they look a lot like seagulls in their nests. Around the time that we were finishing up our viewing though they started to move around and one of them took flight – it went around and around and around the viewing area, gliding through the air. It’s an amazing bird to watch fly, so effortless and graceful and huge!
They stayed active the whole time we were walking back to the centre so that was a slow walk and people were bumping into each other because we were all looking up instead of watching where we were going. Back at the visitor centre, there’s a walkway over to the coast where other birds nest that is well worth the short walk – we could still see the flying albatross from there but not as clearly. And now that we knew what to look for, we saw another one flying over the road on the way back to Dunedin.
The tour isn’t cheap — $55 for an adult ticket but the funds also go to albatross study and protection. Some tours don’t see any active birds, we got lucky. The best time to see them is from December to March when they are raising their young and one parent stays at the nest. And it’s best to go in the afternoon or on day that isn’t that calm because when the wind picks up they’ll be more active.
The albatross spends 85% of its life at sea and sleeps on the ocean during a lot of this time. It’s a bit of a clumsy bird to watch land because its wings fold up. They can live for up to 50 years and mate for life, separating while out at sea and re-uniting with their mate back at the nesting site – they raise one chick together every two years.
In January of this year, a Northern Royal Albatross named Moana was born on Taiaroa Head. Moana got her name from an elementary school in Dunedin as part of a name competition. Moana is a Maroi name meaning ocean or wide expanse of water. The Royal Albatross Centre set up a webcam on Moana’s nest and shared it with the world this year so you could see Moana grow up, learn to fly, and eventually head off on her own to explore the world. There’s a summary video that was shared when she left the nest – seeing her parents next to the wildlife rangers shows you how incredibly big they are!