Australasian Adventures, Part 8 (Captive Animal Encounters)

The previous article discussed our several encounters with wild animals in their native habitats. However, we saw even more in captivity. My older son collects zoos like I collect breweries. He makes sure that he saves a map from each one as a souvenir too (wonder where he inherited that quirk from?). No matter where we wandered, whether New Zealand and Australia, he focused our attention on the animals.

Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium

Kelly Tarlton's Sea Life Aquarium

First we stopped at Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium in Auckland, New Zealand (map). The most fascinating part to me didn’t even involve the animals. The facility occupied a spit of land adjacent to Auckland Harbour although at a subterranean level below the surrounding area. The entrance and exit popped up above the surface while the car park and a fairly significant road ran above the rest. Windows on one side of the building actually gazed out upon the harbour while traffic passed above, unseen and unheard. Sure, I enjoyed the aquatic creatures although that wasn’t really my thing. An underground aquarium, on the other hand, now that fascinated me.

Many of the exhibits focused on sea life from the waters adjacent to New Zealand and farther south to Antarctica. This included sharks and stingrays and such. It also included a fairly substantial colony of penguins that waddled atop the ice and swam in frigid waters.

The aquarium was smaller than what we’ve typically experienced in the United States although we enjoyed what was there. It was a nice indoor space to explore during a rainy afternoon.

Otorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park

Otorohanga Kiwi House

Last February I put out a call to the Twelve Mile Circle audience for Australasian suggestions. One of the people following the Twitter site said we should visit the Otorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park. That seemed like it could work because I could combine it with a stop at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves that we already planned to visit. It wouldn’t be out of the way at all. In fact it would be rather convenient.

My kids loved the Kiwi House (map). They packed a lot of native birds — not just kiwis — into an easily navigated area. Kiwis are nocturnal so they didn’t run around in an outdoor aviary like most of the other birds. Nobody would see them; they’d be asleep. Instead they lived in a darkened building. Visitors walked into an observation area while the kiwi scurried about on the other side of a pain of glass in an approximation of their normal habitat. We kept quiet, let our eyes adjust to the dark, and eventually we saw the kiwis doing their thing. They were funny little creatures. No wonder they’ve earned a reputation for being cute.

Thanks for the suggestion!

Auckland Zoo

Auckland Zoo

After our inland jaunt and our return to Auckland the local zoo fit perfectly into our plans (map). One wouldn’t expect a nation of four and a half million people to have the facilities of much larger nations although they did a decent job of it at the Auckland Zoo. It focused on animals worldwide, with many of the usual African and Asian species one expects at a typical zoo (e.g., elephants, giraffes, tigers and such). In addition, it placed a lot of emphasis on native New Zealand fauna plus that of nearby Australia to an extent. That interested me more anyway. I could see an elephant anywhere.

For instance, notice the reptile in the photograph above. It looks a lot like a lizard, doesn’t it? That’s incorrect however, it’s actually a tuatara. The order Rhynchocephalia to which tuataras belong split into its own distinct branch of reptiles more than 200 million years ago, and it didn’t include lizards. Only a single species survived to the present day. Because of that, scientists consider the tuatara particularly important to the study of reptilian evolution. However, habitat pressures have reduced the population to critical levels on just a few offshore islands where it remains. Recent conservation efforts have focused on the eradication of rats on nearby islands so that tuatara can be reintroduced and build the population.

Taronga Zoo Sydney

Taronga Zoo

Once in Australia we focused our attention on Sydney’s well-regarded Taronga Zoo. I enjoyed the ride there almost as much as the zoo itself. The easiest route from downtown Sydney involved a scenic ferry ride across the harbour to the wharf at the base of the zoo (map). From there, disembarking passengers hop onto a gondola for an uphill climb to the zoo entrance. All the while amazing views of Sydney form a scenic backdrop.

Taronga Zoo was massive. It covered as much acreage and included as many species as any of the largest zoos we’ve ever visited. One section focused specifically on Australia so I finally got to see my koala. We paid a little extra for the koala encounter so we could get really close to one (although no touching). She didn’t seem to mind our presence, actually she kind-of ignored us. Normally I’d consider that a bit silly although I figured we might as well take the opportunity because who knows when we’ll get back to Australia?

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Australasian Adventures, Part 7 (Wild Animal Encounters)

Certainly the wildlife we experienced differed from what we’d typically seen before. Australia and New Zealand, so far removed from the rest of the world for so long, featured all sorts of famously unique creatures. I don’t need to elaborate. We’re all familiar with them. I simply enjoyed the opportunity to experience them in their home territories. Animals being animals of course didn’t always cooperate with my plans. I think they enjoyed mocking me.

Frequent Sightings


The variety of unfamiliar birds grabbed my immediate attention. We also saw a lot of the usual European transplants like house sparrows and common starlings which we ignored. I’ve never been much of a birder although my older son seemed to be leaning in that direction. He kept pointing at specimens and asked me to take photos. I ended up with a bunch of bird images in my collection as a result. I think I identified most of them correctly although feel free to correct me if you know differently.

The featured photo showed two Kookaburras. I’m actually proud of that one because I took it from the balcony of an apartment we rented in Nelson Bay, Australia. The Kookaburras perched pretty far away from me and I actually managed to get the photo without it being a blurry mess for once. I’m sure it was a coincidence.

Many of the birds we saw in their native habitat would be pets kept in cages back home in the United States. Here they were everywhere. Some like the cockatoos traveled in fairly large packs. They would land in a park and pretty much take over, just like pigeons. I’d rather see a cockatoo than a pigeon.

Rare Sightings

Taronga Zoo

We stayed in fairly populous areas of New South Wales during the Australian portion of our trip and we didn’t see a lot of kangaroos. In fact, I had to use a photo I took in a zoo in Sydney to illustrate this entry. I saw lots more kangaroos on my previous trip a couple of decades ago when we visited the Blue Mountains. Here along the coast, not so much. I’m sure they were there, probably in abundance, so we must have been unlucky. I likened it to seeing deer in the United States — ever-present but popping out on their own schedule. The kangaroos appeared whenever we least expected them as we drove along. At least our kids got to say they saw at least some wild kangaroos so we could strike that particular item from the list.

A Day on the Water

Whale Watching Cruise

I noted earlier that we used Nelson Bay Harbour as a starting point for a whale watching excursion. Humpback whales spend their summer off the coast of Antarctica and begin to migrate in late autumn, a journey stretching thousands of kilometres towards their South Pacific breeding grounds. By early winter they pass along the eastern edge of Australia in great numbers. A quirk of geography placed the mouth of Port Stephens next to open ocean within the path of these mighty creatures (map). Ships departing from Nelson Bay could slip into the migration route with minimal effort.

Weather conditions seemed favorable the day we headed out. The open ocean had minimal chop. Cloudy skies diminished glare. The ship’s crew said that whales could be spotted easier on a cloudy day. I wondered if that might be one of those baloney sayings like it being a sign of good luck if it rains on a wedding day so nobody feels bad. Maybe the clouds worked because we found whales almost immediately once we left Port Stephens and hit the ocean. We continued to see multiple pods back-to-back for the next two hours. I didn’t get any decent photos — whales always seemed to breach while I focused elsewhere — although that highlighted my inability to move quickly enough more than a lack of subject matter. We definitely got our money’s worth.

The cruise also came with some bonus creatures. We got close-up views of two more marine mammals; common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins. The common dolphins actually followed our ship for awhile, catching rides in its wake. Then we sailed around a small rocky island where seals basked high above the waves.

Didn’t See at All

Tilligerry Habitat
Tilligerry Habitat

Sure, we saw some great animals. However our encounters seemed to be defined as much by iconic creatures we didn’t get to see in the wild. For instance, we tried like crazy to find a koala. I got lucky during my previous trip, spotting one in Noosa National Park in Queensland. This time, not so much. We traveled to the Tilligerry Habitat in Tanilba Bay (map) where koalas roamed freely in groves along the Karuah River estuary. Workers there posted information about the latest koala sightings although none had been spotted on the day we visited. We looked anyway, starting where they’d been seen the day before, although they’d long since moved along elsewhere. At least we got a nice walk.

The platypus range covers a crescent of eastern Australia and we drove through places supposedly well-populated with them. I knew they must have been there because we stopped at a rest area along the motorway where signs warned people to not use yabby traps (street view). They can harm platypuses. Apparently these devices sometimes drown air-breathing animals. What is a yabby trap? Glad you asked. A yabby is a type of freshwater crayfish (scientific name – Cherax destructor) and people use those traps to harvest them. I had to look that up.

We didn’t see any kiwis in New Zealand either. Kiwis are nocturnal. They don’t appear in daylight orginarily. It seemed strange to me that New Zealand pick a bird that hardly anyone ever sees as a national symbol. Nonetheless, that was the case with the kiwi.

We did see all three of these animals in captivity though, if that counts.

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Australasian Adventures, Part 6 (The Hunter Region)

I dropped a hint in one of the earlier articles that our plans went awry only once. That happened in Australia. Upon landing in Sydney, we headed immediately about three hours north by automobile along the coast into the Hunter Region. The Hunter Valley formed the most well-known portion of the region, acclaimed for its numerous vineyards. Originally we planned to spend a little time touring the countryside on a wine tasting excursion. We simply ran out of energy. We’d pushed hard for more than a week by that point and decided to stay put instead.

However, the Hunter Region extended beyond the vineyards along the Hunter River all the way to the coast. There we did spend three relaxing days. So while it will sound a little strange to talk about an area without touching on its most recognizable feature, I will attempt to do just that anyway. I’ll get to the vineyards next time.

Port Stephens

Port Stephens

It took me a little while to decipher Port Stephens. Eventually I figured it out. It could mean a local government area that encompassed a number of towns and villages just to the north of Newcastle, New South Wales (map). However, it could also mean the large tidal estuary of the Karuah River that formed a large natural harbour (map). The local government area got its name from the adjacent body of water.

I would see the name used in a variety of contexts. I would be like, wait a minute, is this Bobs Farm or is this Port Stephens, because it’s not on the water? Well, Bobs Farm fell within the geographic boundaries of the Port Stephens Council even if disconnected from the actual waters of Port Stephens.

OK. Got it.

Town of Nelson Bay

Nelson Bay

We spent much of our time in the Hunter Region staying at a large apartment we rented in Nelson Bay (map). Nelson Bay, just to be clear, fell within the boundaries of the Port Stephens Council and bordered Port Stephens, the tidal estuary. We visited at mid-week during Winter so it seemed like a quiet place without much activity. I imagined that it must be considerably different during a summer weekend. Its geographic proximity to Sydney practically guaranteed that.

I wondered if Nelson Bay got its named from Admiral Nelson, like a number of other places in the English-speaking world. Well, maybe.

No one is sure whether the town was named after Admiral Nelson or a vessel named Lady Nelson. The name may have come from the Lady Nelson which was used by Governor Lachlan Macquarie when he visited Port Stephens in 1812 or it may simply have been named after Admiral Horatio Nelson, the hero who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

I found a bunch of information on the HMS Lady Nelson including the place where she was built, her 1799 christening, the voyages she took, and so on. Unfortunately I never could find out the identity of the Lady Nelson for whom she was named. That seemed odd. Who was Lady Nelson? Maybe it could have been Admiral Nelson’s wife for all I knew, or maybe not.

Nelson Bay Harbour

Nelson Bay

Nelson Bay, the town, also had a harbour. It formed a part of Port Stephens too, the body of water although I guess it also formed part of the local government area come to think of it. I’ve flogged that dead horse enough.

A lot of local whale watching cruises used Nelson Bay Harbour as their starting point during the winter migration season. Maybe that explained the photo of the smiling white whale on the trailer. I’ll talk about whale watching at length in a future installment.

Moving along.



Leaving Port Stephens and heading back toward Sydney, we stopped outside of Newcastle at Fighterworld (map). It sat sandwiched within a triangular wedge between the southeastern end of Newcastle Airport and the southern corner of Royal Australian Air Force Base – Williamtown. They shared a runway. We enjoyed watching military aircraft take off and land.

My younger son loves military aircraft so Fighterworld became a mandatory stop. He’d visited any number of military aviation museums near air force bases in the United States so this collection offered some interesting new options. He absolutely had to see the De Havilland Vampire and the Hawker Hunter. I’m not exactly sure why. He simply fixated on them when he saw the website. I guess they caught his attention because they don’t normally appear in US military collections, being of British design.

The museum included an attached restaurant called Cafe Fighterworld. I didn’t expect it would be all that busy although it attracted quite a lunchtime crowd. Everyone wore an Australian air force uniform except for us. Apparently it was quite popular with the folks next door at RAAF Williamtown.

I recommend the milk shakes.

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr