Where can walk around in a Jurassic-age petrified forest as penguins emerge dripping from the sea and walk right past you? And almost nobody knows about it.
Curio Bay is given perhaps one line in most New Zealand guide books—if it is mentioned at all. Located east of Invercargill off the Southern Scenic Route, the bay is noted for a large tidal shelf with stumps from a 170 million year petrified forest poking out of it. If that was not enough, every late afternoon the resident colony of the rare yellow-eyed penguins comes ashore for the night. You can see them. You can get close to them. They walk right past you.
If that were still not enough, one bay over is Porpoise Bay where equally rare Hector’s dolphins (a smaller dolphin than the Flipper variety) ride the waves close to shore and even approach and swim alongside surfers.
We stayed at Curio Bay on our first (and only) visit to New Zealand prior to our attempt to move there. First you need to set up camp. The Curio Bay campground is located on Porpoise Bay and a short walking distance from Curio Bay. Individual campsites are hewn out of the thick flax, which serves to protect you from the wind. The office manager is friendly and accommodating; he also sells meat pies that he will heat up for you in a microwave. The facilities are—shall we say—colorful.
A stairway brings you down to the tidal flat at Curio Bay. At first it looks like a rocky beach but up close you can make out the stumps and in a few places entire petrified logs lying on their sides It is felt to be one of the best examples of a fossilized Jurassic age forest in the world.
Off to the side, the surf surges through a gap in the rocks undulating through a dense bed of seaweed. Farther along both up and down the coast, the tidal flat merges into steep rocky cliffs.
Oh, watch out for the huge fur seal lazing on the rocks. We thought he was a rock until the rock snorted and changed position.
If you come back to the tidal flat in the late afternoon, something magical begins to happen. It had begun to rain and the few remaining tourists had left. Then we saw it, a white speck emerge from the sea and just stand there, then after a few long minutes begin the trek up the long rocky beach toward the dense flax scrub filling the ravines just off the beach.
The yellow-eyed penguin is smaller than the more commonly seen Antarctic penguins. Protected in New Zealand and on the endangered species list, it is estimated there are only 6000 left in the world. After a long day in the sea, they return ashore in the late afternoon to their nests.
We sat down on some rocks (Jurassic era petrified forest stumps) kept our distance and waited for our first penguin to come to us. Another long pause, some preening, lifting his or her head this way and that, looking here and there, absolutely no rush. Almost as if doing this for the first time, or considering what to do next. Then a few more steps up the beach, a quick little hop over a small rock ledge and then once again stand there. More preening. Looking around.
Off to the side, we could see another penguin emerge from the water and start the same behavior, and farther down the beach another white speck emerge.
Our penguin walked a little bit more, then stopped, a long pause, more preening, urinating (the concentrated white urine stains the rocks along the beach), looking around for a bit, then a few more steps. Shortly the penguin was right alongside us.
A call came from the dense scrub on the shoreline, a baby calling for its mother. Our penguin articulated its neck to both sides then gave a throaty answer. Finally, after more long pauses and seemingly long consideration, the penguin made its way up the remaining section of rocky beach and plunged into the flax scrub to disappear.
Here’s a video I took of some of the action with two penguins—
Needless to say, if you’re ever in the area…