penguins and the award winning International Antarctic Centre

‘It’s like living in a soap opera’ says the woman feeding the penguins: she had just described how CC ‘doesn’t like water’ and had recently ‘left her old boyfriend for Elvis’, her new one.Prince Edward meets an little blue penguin

CC had been found in Napier by Napier City Council workers (hence the CC) who were digging a storm water drain in West Quay when a digger hit the chicks’ obscured nest and that’s how she came to be rescued and end up living in Christchurch at the New Zealand Penguin Encounter in the International Antarctic Centre.

This is New Zealand’s first combined indoor and outdoor penguin viewing area and it can hold up to 26 Little Blue penguins in its Banks Peninsula natural-themed environment and 80,000 litre pool.  We visitors can see the ‘Little Blues’ above and below water.

All the penguins are birds that have been rescued and with physical disabilities that have left them defenceless, many would not have survived in the wild. Interestingly some of the bird have to wear little blue boots: living in captivity they spend more time on land and get sore feet!

After hand-feeding many of the disabled birds in the water a few who cannot feed in water yet are hand fed. A couple of them climb on Vicky’s lap.

“Climbing in my knee has nothing to do with being friendly or tame, it’s purely wanting the fish” she tells us – despite that, I would love to be so up close and personal with them. It seems that even wild penguins have food preferences, with one of them turning away whenever the ‘wrong variety’ of fish was offered!

It was the blue, painted, penguin footprints-trail that had led us to the centre from the airport. It seemed appropriate that our latest trip here started at the Christchurch airport, departure point for the USA, Italian, and NZ Antarctic flights.  For well over a hundred years, Christchurch has been the starting point for many of the greatest adventures to the ice, firstly from Lyttelton harbour just over the Port Hills and then from Wigram and this airport.

Even today some 70% of the visitors to the frozen continent leave from Christchurch, however, for most of us, this multi-award winning Antarctic Centre is as near to the real thing we’ll get. I have long dreamt of landing on the ice and when Marcus Lush told me he was going to Antarctica to record a TV series (Ice) I was green with envy. Unfortunately, I suspect this centre is as close as I’ll get to the big white continent. However I must confess, every time I enter the indoor polar room and the temperature drops to -18 degrees I revise my daydream – only to change it again once outside and warm.

During the Antarctic storm (every 30 mins) there is great excitement and the authentic blizzard (snow is made monthly) and the audio of a genuine 40 km/h Antarctic winds seems to make the room authentic. The room constantly chilled to -5 degrees and the wind chill machine it drops it further – an admission, I did not use the ice slide although many did.

Christchurch is home to the Antarctic research offices of New Zealand, United States and Italy’s Antarctic programmes, and artists, tourists and explorers have all prepared for their challenges in the city. This means the city’s rich heritage is reflected in museums, walkways, statues and even an Indian Totem Pole of friendship. (See more here)

The International Antarctic Centre is a rich introduction to the continent and acknowledgment of the explorers who, over three centuries, have been spellbound by the awe-inspiring, frozen land, starting with Abel Tasman and James Cook who both found New Zealand while looking for Terra Australis Incognita (Antarctica).

Adventurers associated with both Christchurch and Antarctica include Robert Falcon Scott who left from the port of Lyttelton to again try to reach the South Pole after his earlier attempt had failed. Terra Nova returned to the port in 1913 bringing news of the death of Scott and his four companions on their way back from the South Pole.

Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole in 1911 and later gave a popular public lecture in Christchurch. In gratitude to the Canterbury Museum for their help, he donated the penknife used to cut the flagstaff marking the South Pole; and Irishman Ernest Shackleton who first travelled to Antarctica with Scott but was invalided out and later tried again with his own expedition on Nimrod.

‘I chilled out at the Christchurch International Antarctic Centre’ says my bright green wrist band: so have a prince, heads of state, lots of children and other people from all over the world.  This wrist band not only allows me to stay all day reading, watching and learning in the centre, but also have a ride on the Hagglund – a 16-seater tracked, polar transport vehicle, the same as the Hagglund all terrain vehicles used in Antarctica by the US and New Zealand Antarctic programmes. We are bumped and spun around as it’s put through its paces, swimming and going up and down steep hills. The 15 minute ride departs every 20 minutes from the front of the Antarctic Centre – the males loved it – I wouldn’t do it again!

For people bought up in Christchurch during the 50s and 60s – a period of intense activity in the Antarctic  –  ‘Operation Deep Freeze’ and the early morning sound of DC3s heading ‘to the ice’ are part of our imbedded personal history and its seems highly appropriate the International Antarctic Centre should be sited here.

It’s not often that a tourist facility covers science, technology, fun-rides, history, ecology, nature, conservation, and the rescue of penguins, but this one does. It is a modern shop window for Antarctica and a fun, exciting and hands-on experience for all: no wonder it has won so many awards and international acclaim.

For the three generations of our family, on our second visit as a family, watching the penguins was the high on our list of ‘the best parts’. “It’s pretty cool, even though they are smelly” says master-10-year-old.

Author: Heather - the kiwi travel writer

Nomadic travel-writer, photographer, author & blogger. See more on http://kiwitravelwriter.com and Amazon for my books (heather hapeta)