In the early 1990s, penguins began nesting in an abandoned rock quarry at the edge of Oamaru Harbor on New Zealand’s South Island. Over time, the colony grew and the city of Oamaru formalized the relationship, cleaning up the quarry, setting up nest boxes and a grandstand where visitors can view the blue-feathered penguins, Eudyptula minor, also known as little blue penguins or fairy penguins. Now, 75,000 people a year visit the colony to watch the 2-pound birds, the smallest penguins in the world, roost at night and raise their chicks.
Despite having a visitor’s center, research facility and fancy nest boxes, there’s always been one weak link for the penguins—to get from the ocean, where they spend their days fishing, to the quarry means crossing busy Waterfront Road in Oamaru Harbor. That’s why the city and a consortium of locals and researchers came together to build an underpass to make the penguins’ commute home safer.
“It’s a well-used and well-travelled road, particularly in the summer when the penguins have their chicks and their movements are highest,” Jason Gaskill, general manager of the colony, tells Susannah Cullinane at CNN. “At most of the other places where the penguins come ashore there isn't the volume of traffic or there are no roads. So it was kind of a special case.”
The idea for the underpass stems from research done by Massey University grad student Shelley Ogle, reports Hamish MacLean at the Otago Daily Times. Last year, Ogle along with three other Massey master's students gathered data on the penguins. Ogle studied the time it took for the penguins to make it from the ocean to their colony in the quarry. For penguins that came ashore at an area of beach within the colony boundary, it only took the penguins about five minutes to make it home. But penguins coming ashore at a nearby boat ramp then crossing the road took 40 minutes or more to get home.
Philippa Agnew, a marine biologist with the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony tells MacLean that the colony was considering putting in an underpass as part of an upcoming large update of the facility. But Ogle’s research cinched the deal, and they began construction of the underpass in September.
The project took about three weeks, and, according to Reuters, involved moving power and water lines 80 feet so the tunnel could be placed in the penguins’ preferred spot for crossing the road. Cullinane reports that the penguins began using it almost immediately. Now about 20 penguins per night use the culvert to avoid traffic.
While the little penguin, which only lives in New Zealand and along Australia’s south coast, is not considered endangered, it is declining throughout its range. John Cockrem, penguin researcher and Professor of Comparative Endocrinology at Massey at University, tells Cullinane that the Oamaru Colony is a model for the way local communities can protect natural resources and species while also developing tourism. He thinks establishing similar colonies around the island nation could bring attention and protection to other populations of the penguins.