The Hutton’s shearwaters that circled our albatross boat nest in only one valley in the world – up in the mountains that loom 8,000 feet over Kaikoura. Each evening, thousands of adults raft up on the water just below the peninsula’s cliffs. Sometime after dark, they fly up a particular grassy swale toward the mountains. Or so they say.
Witnessing such a flight seemed like as good a way as any to spend the first night of the year. I lounged around the Lazy Shag hostel most of the day reading Bleak House and plotting my evening. Truth be told, my shearwater plans centered around one of the immense white-paper parcels of fish and chips I kept seeing carried out of the local takeaway. Every available surface around town seemed to have fish and chips unwrapped on it, surrounded by giddy throngs licking ketchup from their fingers.
So at 7:30 I started into town, leaving time to pick up my fish and chips and make the hour’s walk out to the cliffs. Adversity struck almost immediately: Oh! too bad! – it’s New Year’s Day. The chip shops all closed at 4:00!
In the end I found myself crouched on a bench, leaning into a cold easterly wind, eating green olives and nursing a bottle of cheap Australian shiraz. Colder than I had ever been in Antarctica. The evening skies were clear of both clouds and shearwaters. I dejectedly opened a bag of lamb and mint flavored potato chips. Not even in New Zealand is this a good taste combination.
Eventually, I moved downhill and laid in the warm grass behind a windbreak. Stars spread out across the dark sky, providing enough of a backdrop to detect any flying objects, of which I noticed numerous satellites, a couple of shooting stars but not a single shearwater. Finally, I packed my things and walked home in the darkness. Above me were Orion, Taurus, the Pleiades, and Canis Major. It took me a while to recognize them – they were all upside down.
This week I decided to give shearwaters another chance. I was on Stewart Island, or Rakiura, land of the glowing skies, as the Maori called it. Millions of sooty shearwaters nest here, 40 miles out into the Southern Ocean from the South Island. In the charming mythology of the Maori, the South Island is the canoe piloted by the god Maui on a fishing expedition. The North Island is the great fish that Maui caught, so big he had to brace his foot on the Kaikoura peninsula to pull it in, and yell at his crew to throw out an anchor – Rakiura – to slow the boat. (Afterward, some of his crew, including Aoraki, went ashore and became Mt. Cook and the rest of the Southern Alps. Maui directed one of his sons to give the southern landscape some character, so he set to work with a pickaxe and made Fiordland.)
Anyway, on Monday night I armed myself with some crackers and tuna and headed out to Ackers Point. Seventy feet below the trail, little blue penguins stuck their heads out of the water and made little caw-quacks at each other. The hillsides were covered with dense, twisted trunks topped with red flowers like upturned shaving brushes. Parrots flew among them. Underneath were tree ferns a bit taller than me. The vegetation was too tropical for its latitude; it was as if a cruise ship had woken up one day in the Roaring Forties. Everyone was huddled together on the decks, arms drawn close in against their Hawaiian shirts, wondering what the hell was going on.
A little after dark, the shearwaters started coming in. Millions nest in burrows on and around Rakiura, but perhaps only a few hundred on Ackers Point – just enough to give it a good musky smell. The birds came in like skinny bats, whirring their long wings in the still air. They often circled the headland before zeroing in on their nests – one went about 4 feet over my head – and sometimes you could hear them crashing through the underbrush when they landed in the wrong spot. Upon finding their mate on the nest, incubating, the pairs moaned at each other in a curious, urgent way for several minutes, then changed places.
About 2 hours after sunset I turned to go back down the trail. I don’t know what had made me think I wouldn’t need a light, but under the low canopy it was intensely dark. Dark like the inside of a Guinness can. I stretched my eyes wide open and still couldn’t see anything. I felt along the 1.4-km path one step at a time, listening for the sound of the packed gravel. Occasionally I heard little footsteps and some fluttering or scrabbling, as presumably a shearwater got the bejeezus scared out of it. I bent down and tried to light up the poor creature using the Indiglo dial on my watch, but all this did was turn a tiny patch of the darkness a pitiful shade of green.
That was when I remembered a conversation with Michael, a local fisherman. It was about rats. “Oh there’s millions – zillions – of bloody rats on Stewart,” he had said. “Big as!” A few minutes later we had heard one gnawing at the walls.
I stood up straight and put my watch away.