Cape Kidnappers gannet colony in New Zealand

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If you’re heading to New Zealand’s North Island soon, make a detour to Cape Kidnappers and encounter the world’s largest colony of gannets!

Located some 20km southeast of the North Island town of Napier, Cape Kidnappers is a promontory famous for its impressive colony of Northern Gannets – more precisely, the world’s largest « continental » colony of Australasian Gannets(Morus serrator or Australasian Gannet), with almost 20,000 individuals. The name « gannet » is widely used to designate these large seabirds of the Sulidae family, which comprises 10 species worldwide.

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Photo credit: Pixabay – Nydegger

After wintering off the coast of Australia from May to September, gannets return here to nest in early spring, incubate their eggs, raise their offspring and put on a fantastic show from late October to late April.

The adult Australasian booby has a wingspan of two meters and an average weight of two kilos. Disgraceful on land, the spread of its tapered wings as it takes flight, and its dazzling swoops to dive and catch fish in the ocean, are exceptional.

Where does the name Cape Kidnappers come from?

Photo credit: Flickr – Tony Hisgett

Cape Kidnappers is a sandstone promontory with steep white cliffs located east of Hastings in Hawke’s Bay. The cape was named by Captain Cook after a Maori attempt to kidnap Tiata, a Tahitian member of his crew from HMS Endeavour, on October 15, 1769.

How to get to Cape Kidnappers

You can observe this impressive colony either on an organized excursion transported on a tractor-towed platform, or on foot or by kayak along the beach only, following the cliffs for around 9 kilometers. The beauty of the site offers magnificent views and scenery. Access from the plateau is impossible, as the road crosses private property.

The best observation period is from late November to February. The cape is closed to visitors between July and October during the nesting season. Please note: it is imperative to find out about tide times beforehand. Access to the nesting site is only possible at low tide.

The start of the walk is at the end of Clifton Road (Hawke’s Bay), where you can park for free if you come by car or camper van.

Bring comfortable shoes suitable for walking in sand and sometimes water (avoid sandals), a warm jacket or windbreaker, waterproof clothing (if necessary), hat, sunglasses, camera, and possibly a swimsuit, towel and, depending on the schedule, a picnic.

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Photo credit: Flickr – Richard

On foot: you should start your « outward » walk no earlier than 3 hours after high tide, and your « return » walk no later than 1h30 after low tide. Even so, you’ll probably have to get your legs a little wet to get past certain spots. Once you’ve reached Cape Kidnappers, you’ll be able to enjoy the gannet show for around 2 hours, but be sure to check your travel time.

By kayak: when the sea is calm and the weather is fine.

On a towed trailer: Since 1952, Gannet Beach Adventure has been offering guided tours of the Hawke’s Bay coastline, from Clifton to Cape Kidnappers, in a fun, tractor-drawn trailer, with experienced local guides/drivers.

The wonders of Cape Kidnappers

On this tour, you’ll discover the natural and geological wonders of the area, including fracture lines from ancient earthquakes, fossils and gullies formed by wind and water. Once you arrive at Cape Kidnappers, you’ll have around 1.5 hours to climb the cliffs and observe the gannets from less than a metre away!

It’s the option I prefer, given the vagaries of the weather and especially the tide times, and also because we’re lucky enough to have someone who knows the area inside out and shares his culture with us.

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Photo credit: Flickr – Mattdwen

Sometimes this trip can be full of surprises. Indeed, in spite of the austral summer, the weather can be capricious, with the elements raging, transforming the trip into a truly epic adventure, with an adrenalin rush, but without danger.

My personal experience at Cape Kidnappers

When I visited this place, the ocean was very choppy, a consequence of Cyclone Gita, which hit the archipelago in the form of heavy rain and storms in February 2018.

But that wasn’t enough to discourage Colin, our driver and guide, who knows these cliffs and the rocks that litter the beach by heart, and travels this route in all weathers. An experience I’ll never forget: we set off at around 4.30pm in a light but penetrating rain, despite our equipment, wind and grey skies impairing visibility. The tractor slalomed along the semblance of a beach, overgrown with waves in places. At times, Colin hesitated to find the most appropriate route to avoid getting the trailer stuck, particularly by skirting the submerged rocks that generated currents. On the trailer, 20 people, lined up in rows of 10 on each side. On the outward journey, I sit facing the ocean and my legs are copiously sprayed by the waves that hit the trailer, while those facing the gigantic cliffs report a few falling rocks tumbling down the wall. Colin stops several times to show us the cracks and breaks in the cliff, telling us how they were formed, and reassures us with jokes to lighten the mood.

Arriving at Cape Kidnappers, we climb the cliff by a footpath and discover thousands of birds gathered in the mist on the plateau, not shy at all. All we can hear is the wind and their distinctive call. They’re there, peaceful, unperturbed. The young birds, with their dark plumage, are almost full-grown. We witness a ballet of take-offs and landings, but also some touching behavior when the pairs meet up and rub each other’s beaks and necks or smooth their wings. These are memorable moments, despite the absence of sunshine.

We reach Clifton at dusk, around 9pm, soaked to the skin, but happy to have made the journey. We look more like castaways than tourists.

That day, we were the only group on the excursion… Who were the craziest?

Take the opportunity to visit Napier

Heavily affected by the devastating earthquake of 1931, the city was rebuilt in the Art Deco style of the time, a stunning architectural style that makes it the world’s leading city in terms of the number of Art Deco buildings, and a magnet for tourists. Art Deco museum and stores for enthusiasts and those nostalgic for the era, a charming coastal town.

And also some fifty colorful murals (Street Art) scattered around Napier, inciting reflection and celebrating the well-being of our oceans’ ecosystems. These works were created as part of street art festivals held in 2016 and 2017.

Main photo credit: Flickr – Pierre Roudier