The school teacher and the egg – the remarkable story of the Taiaroa Head albatross

In her book outlining the history and development of the New Zealand coast, “Castles in the Sand”, Raewyn Peart relates the remarkable story of the Taiaroa Head albatross. This is a tale of determination – both of the albatross itself, and the man who decided to intervene on its (and our) behalf.

The majestic royal albatross  – among the world’s largest flying birds, with a wingspan of 3 metres – nests mainly on offshore islands. Taiaroa Head, on the Otago Peninsula [click here to view map], is now the only mainland albatross nesting site in the world. However, even here, its ongoing survival has been a tenuous one.

The first recorded albatross egg laid at Taiaroa Head was found in 1920. However, before the egg could hatch, the residents of the nearby lighthouse had taken it to eat. But the birds did not give up. Over the next 15 years, at least one egg was laid at the site each season, but the eggs were all destroyed by humans or their pets. In 1935, one egg did eventually hatch, only for the chick to be killed by a dog.

Finally, a local school teacher, Lance Richdale, decided that it was time that someone did something – and that he was the man to do it. During the 1937 nesting season, he set up a campsite on the rocky promontory to guard a newly laid egg. It successfully hatched, and the first fledgling albatross flew out to sea the following year.

The site is now a protected reserve, and more than 100 birds breed there. It now attracts 60,000 tourists and visitors, who, rather than snatch eggs, are keen to get a glimpse of this majestic and determined ocean traveller.

Source/further reading: Castles in the sand (2009), by Raewyn Peart.

Photo top left: An albatross and chick at Taiaroa Head (photo: Royal Albatross Centre). Above right: The lighthouse at Taiaroa Head, photographed by the Burton Brothers in the 1890s. Not to be reproduced without permission from the Alexander Turnbull Library ID:PA1-o-287-47

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