Dive-Bombers, Giants, and Reeking Cisterns - NZ Learning Continues...

Who knew we'd become bird watchers??

From the graceful Bermuda Longtails to the clumsy Blue-footed Boobies of the Galapagos, we have been fascinated by the varied and unique bird life we’ve encountered.  I never thought I’d be a birdwatcher, but the moment I hear a clear, lilting call or see a shadow swooping across the sails, I scurry up on deck to get a better view and holler to one of the kids to grab the bird book and binoculars.  We’ve learned to look for certain characteristics that help to classify birds - tail shape, wing design, prominent coloring or marking, beak shape, and even the way that they fly through the air.  We’re not great at identifying a bird from it’s call yet, although some are hard to miss - like the Tui’s long melodic song here in New Zealand or the loud squawk of the greedy seagulls fighting over a crust of bread outside our galley window.


Striking markings on head, lining wings,
and around the eyes and beak
The birds we’ve seen in New Zealand don’t disappoint - colorful Rosellas, a Quail trailed by its puffy chicks, curious Kea, the red-beaked Pūkeko, the elusive Kiwi, and the robust Wood Pigeon.  Check out these and many other New Zealand birds by clicking here.  But none is as mesmerizing to us as the glorious Gannet.  Recently, we took a trip to the west coast of the North Island to observe a bustling Gannet colony

Gannet colony on New Zealand's western shoreline

The flat tops of the shoreline cliffs were covered with nesting birds spaced apart like their nest areas were assigned by a zoning committee.  A closer look revealed fluffy white chicks, barely able to hobble around, juveniles with black, speckled feathers that contrasted their parent’s bright white plumage, and territorial adults nipping at any neighbor who dared get too close to their plot.  

Territorial squabbles - this guy landed in the wrong place! 

Younger Gannet chick (bottom left) and Juvenile chick (top right) with their mothers

With a wing span of 5-6 feet, a few Gannets soared gracefully over the bustling community to look for trouble or to find a place they could land without upsetting the neighbors.  Others would scan the water, spot a fish, and dive straight into the water like a rocket, reminiscent of the Boobies we saw in the Galapagos (turns out they are closely related to one another).

Such grace and beauty soaring on the updrafts from the cliffs.  They provide
the perfect lift for young birds taking their first flights.

Gannets are beautiful flyers and impressive divers, but the minute they put down their landing gear, they turn into absolute klutzes, fumbling and flopping all over the place before finally balancing to stand upright.  

Yes, I'm talking about you.
The viewing area was well marked with signage about the birds’ migration to Australia and how they communicate with one another.  No textbook needed for this lesson!  But a quick look online when we got back to the boat helped us to find even more interesting facts about these giants of the sky.  They have many unusual characteristics which help them survive - like bubble wrap and binoculars!  Read more about them here (and make sure you check out the photo in the bottom right of the webpage - that’s where we were!) Learning surrounded us as we observed this feathered community.

Can you imagine the rings on this tree stump?
Michael tried to count, but finally just hopped inside!

"Father of the Forest"


Another giant of which New Zealand can boast are the massive kauri trees.  It is these mammoth trees (some over 2,000 years old) that were used by the Māori to construct the sturdy war canoes, called wakas.  At the Treaty Grounds on our previous field trip, Michael had sat in the center of the stump which was salvaged after the felling of the Kauri tree used to build the waka on display.  We wanted to see these trees up close and personal in order to really get an idea of just how giant they actually are.  So, we drove west once again, to see a living kauri tree in the Waipoua Forest.  

"Lord of the Forest"

A short hike through the forest brought us to ‘The Lord of the Forest’, a tree whose first branches grow nearly 18 meters from the ground and whose diameter is 4.4 meters (that's over 14 feet wide!).  A short drive and another trail led us up to ‘The Father of the Forest’, a tree estimated to be over 2,500 years old.  Along the same path, we encountered ‘The Four Sisters’, four trees that are thought to have grown from four seeds of the same tree.  They seem to stand in defense, huddled with their backs together and all of their branches facing outward.  The roots of the kauri trees are susceptible to kauri dieback disease, a disease caused by spores carried in soil.  To protect and preserve these trees, conservation groups have set up shoe-cleaning stations at the beginning of many trails and the Department of Conservation maintain raised wooden walking paths.  The kauri forest field trip offered lessons in botany, conservation, measurements, and even a bit of Maori mythology.  

Legs like tree trunks.  Kauri features in a northern version of the creation story of Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother. At the beginning of time Rangi and Papa clung together, trapping their children in the darkness between them. The strongest child, Tāne Mahuta (the god of the forest), pressed his shoulders against his mother and pushed upwards with his powerful legs, separating his parents and allowing light to enter and bring life to the world. Some northern Māori tribes say that his legs were the trunks of giant kauri trees. 

"The Four Sisters"

Reeking Rest

"The Doctor" to cure what ails you.
All this sightseeing led us to seek out some rest in this next outing, the Waiariki Pools in Ngawha Springs .  A very rugged collection of hot mineral pools of varying temperatures to soothe the body and soul.  For less than $10, all four of us enjoyed the bubbly mineral-rich baths.  The kids were intrigued by the colors of the water in the different pools - cloudy blue, muddy gray, and a few looked like they were filled with oil!  The cause of the varied colors connected perfectly to our recent science unit about rocks and minerals.  Fancy that!  The minerals and elements found underground determine the color, clarity, and even smell of the water-  sulfur, ammonia, bicarbonate, boron and mercury create bubbly concoctions to relieve muscle tension and skin irritations.  

This place was nothing like the spas I’ve been to before.  There were no tiles lining the pools, no showers with fancy-smelling shampoos, no fluffy robes or massaging slippers, no lounge areas with cucumber infused ice water, but this place had character and charm.  I felt like we were literally in someone’s backyard who’d just been digging a hole one day and suddenly, up bubbled some hot, stinky water.  And in true entrepreneurial spirit, he called his mates over, handed them shovels, hauled in some railroad ties, and up bubbled a business!  The look of the place didn’t phase us, though.  We simmered and soaked till we were well done.  For the rest of the day, we all smelled like rotten eggs, but, ahh, we were relaxed.

Boat-schooling is tough!  But this is my kind of field trip!
Or... isn't it time for a teacher inservice day???
Doesn't it make you want to slip right in??

This month, the kids will be enrolled as guests in the local primary school in order to get a peer/classroom experience.  Uniforms are pressed and school supplies are packed!  Field Trip will be cozying up to a dock and taking a breather, while Mark and I focus on getting her cleaned up and hunker down on some things we’ve been working on.  That means there won’t be much cruising or too many field trips going on around here, but the journey continues…



  1. Hi Sarah, we love your blog and have been following you for some time. We are hoping to do something similar soon, and I would love to pick your brain about a few things, especially schooling on the boat. We have 2 kids (9 and 11). We've just started a blog (not much on there now as we've just gotten started): svcoolrunnings.blogspot.com. If you have a moment, could you email me at gahibberd@gmail.com? I would love to connect with you! Thanks in advance and I look forward to hearing from you! Kind regards, Gudrun


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