Next time you wake, heart racing, from an all-too-vivid dream, spare a thought for slumbering yellow-eyed penguins. In their dreams these seafaring creatures must battle heavy seas and pursue everelusive fish into the ocean's depths.

The relative comfort and security of their coastal nests - where ideally they are installed with full stomachs and incubating eggs - provide refuge from such rigours. In these private hideaways University of Otago PhD candidate Ursula Ellenberg has seen - and heard - the world's rarest penguins dreaming: a privilege which is one of the special perks of her award-winning research into the impact of unregulated ecotourism on yellow-eyed penguins.

Ellenberg's research involves placing "dummy" eggs which conceal highlysensitive microphones and tiny, remote-controlled cameras into the birds' nests to enable her to monitor the birds' noises - most particularly their heart rate - and activity.

Ellenberg has found that the penguins' heart rates double as a result of even minimal human contact and can take up to 30 minutes to return to the normal resting rate. This is a clear indicator of stress which takes a physiological toll on the birds.

"An increased heart rate has a direct energetic cost," explains Ellenberg. "So, a half-hour of increased pulse is very costly to the bird in terms of energy loss. If these are one-off events it's not really a problem, but frequent human proximity can be very problematic. So it's imperative people stay out of breeding areas."

Ellenberg says the problem is compounded at sites where birds are exposed to unregulated visitor access, where they demonstrate an even stronger reaction to human proximity than less habituated birds. This means these birds are not only disturbed more often, but that each disturbance event is more costly for the affected birds, multiplying the disturbance effects.

"A lot of people assume that good intentions are enough, but we've proven that you need site- and species-specific research to provide the basis for ecotourism management."

Visitors often ruin the very wildlife experience they have come to enjoy. She illustrates her point with an anecdote from one of her many experiences as an observer at Sandfly Bay, near Dunedin. On this occasion, she encountered a family sitting on the beach enjoying a picnic as they waited for penguins to come ashore. Ellenberg, who could see penguins "lining up" just beyond the surf line, waiting for the beach to be clear, approached the family and suggested they move into hiding.

"Within minutes the first of many penguins landed," she recalls. "It was ironic that the family was preventing the very event they had come to observe from happening, but it was great to share the moment when they realised they had been in the way, as well as their excitement watching penguins come up the beach after a long day's work out at sea."

If adult birds returning from hunting are delayed in feeding their chicks, the direct result can be underweight chicks, which will consequently have a negative effect on their survival prospects. But Ellenberg is hopeful that better management of visitor sites such as Sandfly Bay can go a long way to safeguarding the birds' well-being.

"A lot of people assume that good intentions are enough, but we've proven that you need site- and speciesspecific research to provide the basis for ecotourism management," says Ellenberg, who believes most ecotourists want to do the right thing. Improved signage and a new viewing platform at Sandfly Bay are the direct outcome of her research, which earned her the Adding Value to Nature prize in the 2008 MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year Awards.

"I'm hopeful that if a project like mine can win a prize in an environment where science usually needs to have direct commercial application to be recognised, it suggests that attitudes are changing and that maybe people are starting to value science for other purposes."

Ellenberg agrees that the principles of species-specific visitor management which have largely been determined by her findings can be applied throughout the country. "I think New Zealand can be an engine, especially in ecotourism. We had a showcase problem, so I'd love to see this becoming a showcase solution."


Strawberry Sound, Dunedin, kindly made equipment available for this research and helped with adapting sound technology to field conditions.