If you’ve ever been out fishing off the coast of the South Island you may have seen one of these beautiful big birds come swirling down to feed on the burley thrown off the back of the boat. They dwarf any other large seabird with their three metre wingspan, almost wide enough to hang the washing on. Their elegance is memorable.
Taiaroa Head, on the Otago Peninsula, is the only mainland breeding colony of Northern Royal Albatross in the world, which is surprising given it is just a short drive from Dunedin, New Zealand’s fourth largest city outside Auckland. Each year, in November, around 30 albatross couples will lay eggs up on the wild, exposed headland, with the hope of hatching a chick. They only lay a single egg, every second year. Parents share the nest-minding and feeding until the chick is big enough to fend for himself (usually at around 9 – 10 months old). In September the chick is well-fledged and big enough to take off, quite literally, into a strong breeze and head to sea for three to five years. Once fully grown it will then return to land, quite possibly to this same point where it was born, and raise young of its own.
Taiaroa Head is a protected area, managed by the Department of Conservation. It has a long history of Maori habitation, whaling and sealing camps and an artillery battery, and has been home to the albatrosses for an undetermined length of time. They can be watched discreetly from the observatory all year, except mid-September to mid-November when they are nesting. The Royal Albatross Centre can be visited all year round though as up to 200 albatross can live on the headland at any one time – centre hours differ slightly between summer and winter.
Sharing the same prominent point of land is Fort Taiaroa, which is home to the world’s only remaining working example of a ‘Disappearing Gun’. This one was built in 1886 and put in place to protect the coastline from the threat of Russian invasion. Luckily it was never needed. Taiaroa Head is an easy 45 minute drive along the Otago Peninsula by rental car from Hertz Dunedin Airport Car Rental.