Orca and Little Blues in the Channel

Completed 6 March 2019.

Orca and Little Blue Penguins in the Tiritiri Matangi Channel
Orca and Little Blue Penguins in the Tiritiri Matangi Channel, Acrylic on canvas mount, 60 x 90 cm (24 x 36 inches)
Detail 1
Detail 1
Detail 2
Detail 2


Tiritiri Matangi Island is a wildlife sanctuary run by the Department of Conservation (DOC). New Zealand endemic wildlife consists primarily of birds with low numbers of reptiles and amphibians, so “Tiri” island is known essentially as a bird sanctuary. You can access the island by boat or by booking a day ferry trip.

I find the bird calls especially interesting…
Prehistoric Aotearoa (New Zealand) was a forested land with so many birds that early Europeans spoke of not being able to talk in the forests because of the ambient birdcall noise. The Maori made a minor impact on these forests, but Europeans harvested them industrially and cleared land for farming. As a result, the birds’ forest habitat is now minimal, and in the suburbs, we encounter and hear primarily exotic birds.
So when we visit Tiri, we hear birdcalls from prehistoric Aotearoa that we don’t hear on the mainland. The birds sound especially melodic as we paddle along the shore of Tiri with calm, quiet, glassy sea conditions in the early morning.


Orca pass through the Tiritiri Matangi Channel when moving up or down the coastal Hauraki Gulf.  I’ve only encountered them once, where the Channel rounds the corner towards Army Bay. New Zealand has as few as 200 Orca, but they are big, visible and iconic for all coastal Kiwi communities. They feature in the news, media, Youtube, and social media. Our home area of Whangaparaoa translates to “Bay of the Whales”, which may possibly refer to Orca.

Little Blue Penguins

For us, these are the characters of the Channel. They are the world’s smallest penguins (and surely the cutest). They are tiny compared to the African Penguins that we know. Australians have named them Fairy Penguins. I’ve held one that I rescued from my kayak, when it had a hook and trailing line in its mouth. I was surprised at how small its wings were as they struck me frantically. It’s last act as I released it back into the water without the hook was to bite me on the hand and then flee while looking back malevolently over its shoulder.

(Wikipedia) Little Blue Penguins exiting a burrow
(Wikipedia) Little Blue Penguins exiting a burrow

Little Blue Penguins have a distinctive “aah aah” call that they seem to use as “where are you?” when they’ve become separated from each other. In mating season the Channel can be relatively noisy in places with calls that include a type of bray, similar to a “Jackass” penguin (listen to the Little Blues here, courtesy of Wikipedia).
When baitfish are around, we see groups of up to six penguins hunting together. I’ve also seen them moving one-behind-the-other in a straight line on the surface (purpose of this activity unknown). On Tiri itself, DOC has built penguin nest-boxes above the high tide mark, within the edge of the forest, to facilitate breeding. These boxes have a glass/acrylic panel through which you can look at a brooding parent.

NOTE: Little Blue Penguins are best known internationally through the real-life story of a farmer training dogs to protect a colony of them against ravening foxes in Australia. See here for the story.

A rare bird

Sue and I paddled from Army bay across to Tiri early one morning, parked the kayaks on Hobbs Beach, a beautiful little West-facing sandy beach, and strolled up a hill to a bench where we sat and chugged a few liters of water. Hopping about in a tree right next to us was a pair of strange-looking birds whose behaviour reminded me of the Knysna and Purple-crested Louries in Africa. They were grey with black beaks, black facial masks, and distinct blue wattles. Like many birds on Tiri, they showed no fear of humans. When we later saw the ferry approaching from the direction of Gulf Harbour, we paddled off to the Northern side of the island, to another pretty sandy beach, knowing that the ferry would spew forth day-hikers and birdwatchers, When the birdwatchers eventually caught up with us, the first question one of them asked was, “Have you seen the Kokako?” I must’ve looked baffled because he followed up with “They’ve been reintroduced here, and our group mission today is to try and see or photograph them… grey birds with blue wattles.” We explained our earlier sighting, which sent everyone racing excitedly back towards Hobbs Beach.

So here is the North Island Kokako, courtesy of Wikipedia.

And here is the DOC page on the Kokako recovery plan (with nice photos)

The conservation status is “at risk, recovering”, with an estimated 1600 pairs.


Preliminary conception of this painting
On 6 Feb I posted preliminary images of this painting:

[PRELIM] On the Easel – Orca and Little Blues in the Channel
Orca And little Blues in the Channel
[PRELIM] Orca and Little Blues in the Channel, Acrylic on canvas mount, 60 x 90 cm (24 x 36 inches)
I’ve now modified this original conception:

  • I felt that the Orcas were too crowded and too uniform in their presentation, so I cut the number down to three and changed their action.
  • I also needed to modify the island as my memory of it had only been good for our regular haunt around the Northern (left) end, and I’d also painted it too low in profile.

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