Penguin's remarkable zest for life

WILMA MCCORKINDALE
Last updated 05:00 18/05/2014
Sharkey the penguin
WILMA MCCORKINDALE/Fairfax NZ
MUSTN'T GRUMBLE: Despite more than his share of tough times, Sharkey just keeps on waddling.

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He nearly perished in the jaws of a killer shark; he's been divorced, dumped and widowed; all of his offspring died; he's had a spell in rehab; and, this year, he almost starved to death.

It's just one thing after another for yellow-eyed penguin pensioner Sharkey.

At 17, Sharkey is one of the oldest yellow-eyeds on Otago Peninsula but, despite his age and brushes with death, he's got a spring in his step this year after getting some special treatment from the Conservation Department, which has worked overtime to rehabilitate 280 yellow-eyed penguins suffering from malnutrition.

Otago DOC manager David Agnew and field officer Mel Young said a mystery illness killed 60 precious breeding birds last year. There was a suspicion sea warming or some sort of toxin was responsible. This year climatic change and variations at sea may have interrupted the yellow-eyeds' usual food supplies, they said.

Many juvenile birds ended up on the necropsy table at Massey University's zoology department as scientists tried to find out why they died.

Sharkey's survival is all the more remarkable because of his documented escape from a shark, back in the 90s. Volunteers monitoring his colony on a small private beach on Otago Peninsula have been able to identify him and keep an eye on him because one flipper still has a serrated edge where the shark got him.

The founder of Dunedin's Elm Wildlife Tours, Brian Templeton, found the badly wounded year-old Sharkey on a beach. Templeton rejected a vet's advice to euthanise him because of the cost and intensive care needed to treat him.

"I told the vet to stitch the bird up, took him home and cared for him until he recovered.

"He's been as casual as hell ever since. Humans don't mean a thing to him."

This year, landowner David McKay, who has spent almost three decades monitoring yellow-eyeds, noticed Sharkey coming up the beach looking emaciated, missing his feathers, and drained of all colour.

At 4 kilograms he was far too skinny to start this season's moult, which takes three to four weeks during which penguins cannot go out to sea to feed because they do not have the protection of their waterproof feathers.

McKay took Sharkey to the nearest rehab facility, Penguin Place, where he was returned to full health.

The centre's owner, Lisa King, said as well as local birds, the facility hand-fed 70 juvenile underweight yellow-eyed penguins that would have died during their moult because of malnutrition.

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She said staff soon cottoned on to the fact Sharkey was people-friendly.

"He was always right there, at the gate [when staff arrived with fish at feeding times]," she said, and he accepted the morsels from their hands, uncommon behaviour for people-shy penguins.

By the time he was ready to leave, Sharkey was a porky 8kg, hardly recognisable in his new plumage having finally achieved a successful moult, and had established himself as head honcho in the pen, King said.

Templeton said Sharkey always "lets them know who's boss".

"Because he is an old penguin he can be quite an aggressive old bugger when he has to be. He's probably got a few individuals to sort out now that he's back [on the beach]. Another penguin has moved into his spot in his absence."

Templeton's son Shaun, who now runs the tour business, said Sharkey's life was a series of tragedies.

"His wives died or divorced him, their chicks died . . . he's pretty laid back but dominant at the same time. He enforces the rules to the other penguins. He rules the roost.

"He's a lot more tolerant of people than the other penguins - he's had a lot of interaction with people. That's one of the drawcards for us. It's a big bonus."

Otago's Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust chief executive Sue Murray said because there are only 400 breeding pairs left in the region, it was time for research into the yellow-eyed penguins' marine environment to find answers for malnutrition and other diseases that were killing them.

Templeton said over the years Sharkey has "pulled a few birds" and lost them again.

"Thirty per cent of the time yellow-eyeds are loyal to one partner. But out of sight of their mates, they flirt like hell. Sharkey, for one, seems to have had a few bachelor days."

- Sunday Star Times

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