Wildlife Adventures on Stewart Island

Here we were on a tiny little boat rocketing through the seas; a blue speck in a grey seething mass…

Someone else had decided to hop off the Stray tour bus at Steward Island as well (a woman from south England named Rosie), so I met up with her the hostel and together we headed off into nature. Ulva Island, like parts of Stewart Island, is a natural reserve, but unlike Stewart Island, Ulva is completely pest free. No rats, dogs, stoats, ferrets, etc. to threaten the delicate native ecosystem. Consequently, indigenous birds and plants flourish on this isolated piece of land.

The ticket for the Ulva Island ferry.
The ticket for the Ulva Island ferry.

We got to the small port in time for the ferry, were handed our tickets (consisting of Sharpie-d leaves), and hopped on to a six-seater with a bird enthusiast from DC and an Aussie couple. And off we went into the ocean, leaping through the waves, towards a misty green bulk.

The forest rustled with the sounds of birds when we arrived. A weka greeted us as at the hut next to the dock, waiting patiently for us to drop crumbs out of our pockets. We apologized to the weka, bought a guide, and headed off into the wet bush. The narrow packed gravel path twisted through the greenery. The foreign bird song complimented the steady drip of water on the leaves. Ferns swayed as we passed, mosses followed at our heels, and native trees provided protection from the wet chill of the grey skies.

We talked of dinosaurs as New Zealand parakeets flitted and tittered in the corner of our vision. Fantails hopped along the path ahead of us, evading Rosie’s camera. A weka would occasionally be heard shifting around in the undergrowth. And the Stewart Island robin would come and peak at the bugs at our feet when we bothered to stand still long enough.

The misty distances from a beach on Ulva Island.
The misty distances from a beach on Ulva Island.

The path also took us to a couple beaches, deserted save for a few wandering oyster-catchers. The misty distances that stretched out beyond the sea had a faintly unreal quality to them, and we struggled to imagine living on these wet and barren shores as some people did in the 1800s.

It was leaving one of these beaches that we encountered a shock. Rounding a corner, Rosie suddenly put her hand out and stopped me. There, off on the side of the path, was a pale, brown mass: a sleeping New Zealand sea lion. He awoke from our approach and reared his head. We froze and backed away, unsure what to do. We looked at the bush for a way through. Dense ferns and fallen logs blocked our way. We looked at the guide for information. Nothing. That path was the only way forward so we essentially had two options:

  1. Back track and miss a part of the looped track.
  2. Sneak past him, stupid but not inconceivable…

My heart was pounding as I lightly stepped on the moss at the edge of the path. The sea lion snorted and knocked the ferns at his side. I reached his neck, he moved his head, and I rushed forward. I had made it past.

Rosie sneaking past the New Zealand sea lion.
Rosie sneaking past the New Zealand sea lion.

Meanwhile, Rosie stood on the other side, nearly immobile in fear. We had concluded that the sea lion was probably injured and/or half-awake, which was why he wasn’t making more drastic movements other than raising his head and displaying his teeth. Even so, Rosie couldn’t move until the sea lion had turned his eyes away from the path and fell back to sleep. I continually motioned her towards me as she inched forward on shaking legs, displaying the appropriate amount of fear and trepidation. When she reached his neck, he moved and she ran away. Clutching my arm, we both rushed around the next corner.

What followed after the adrenaline had died down was more tramping through the bush, a couple of scares as a few kaka flew across our path, and Rosie worrying about whether or not we did the right thing. At the next beach, a sign warmed people to stay 10 meters away from sea lions at all times. Woops

Rosie calmed down a bit as we encountered the others from the boat and learned that they did or would’ve done the same thing. We weren’t the only idiots on the island.

Eventually the little blue boat returned, and we were welcoming back into the sea.


Tea, dinner, and a movie at the hostel before we went out to see the main attraction of Stewart Island: kiwis.

You see, all varieties of kiwis are endangered. These nocturnal birds can only be found in certain areas around the country and they are often so few and far in between that they are rarely seen. Stewart Island with its relatively high kiwi population is therefore one of the places to see New Zealand’s iconic bird. In fact, it’s why most people come here.

We’d heard a lot of tips from various sources (written and verbal) about the best way to go about spotting this allusive creature on Stewart Island. The consensus: go out to the rugby field at night, pick a spot, turn off the flashlight, stand there in silence, and wait for them to come out of the surrounding forest. It was raining fairly heavily when we thought about kiwi spotting, but we were determined, so we bundled up, slung on our rain jackets, and headed out.

photo credit: flyingkiwigirl Okarito, West Coast via photopin (license)
photo credit: flyingkiwigirl Okarito, West Coast via photopin (license)

Up a hill and down a muddy driveway, we were there at the rugby field. Planting our feet at one corner, we let our eyes adjust. With water clouding my glasses, the world soon became a monochrome impressionist painting, but still we stayed.

Soon a red light appeared on the other side of the field, followed by a sweeping beam of white. It lingered a moment on us before moving on. It had appeared that another duo had come out to search as well. We must’ve been a strange sight for them to see: two people standing alone and silent in the middle of a field at 11 ‘o clock at night in the pouring rain.

At one point, Rosie turned to me and whispered: “What if kiwis are some national joke that New Zealand plays on tourists?”

It certainly was starting to feel like that. The wind was picking up and the rain kept on coming. I had to wipe my glasses off several times to even remotely see anything other than splotches of misty greys. I was about to turn to Rosie to see if she wanted to call it a night when we heard it: a high pitched chittering noise at the edge of the field, the distinctive call of the kiwi. We froze as the other kiwi spotters swept their beam of light across the grass. The sound moved through the trees, around the edge and then…it was gone.

Disheartened, soaked, and chilled we didn’t stay much longer and quickly slugged back to the hostel, longing for warmth.


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