Plunging penguins packing cameras

Marine scientist Dr Thomas Mattern, at Boulder Beach, with one of his innovative video cameras...
Marine scientist Dr Thomas Mattern, at Boulder Beach, with one of his innovative video cameras which will be attached to yellow-eyed penguins this summer. Photo by Linda Robertson.
An extraordinary bird's-eye view will soon be revealed as cameras track yellow-eyed penguins as they dive to the depths of the ocean off Otago Peninsula.

Specially designed GoPro-type cameras will be attached to the backs of the penguins in an effort to discover how they navigate along the sea floor and what they prey on.

Marine scientist Dr Thomas Mattern said the University of Otago-funded research was a continuation of work which indicated the penguins followed ridges left in the seabed by the trawl fishery as that was where blue cod gathered to feed on the exposed crustaceans and invertebrates.

Blue cod was a popular food for the penguins but its dense nature was not easy for their chicks to digest, which could lead to the starvation and disease problems they had experienced in recent years.

''This is conjecture at the moment. We hope this season to get the final proof of that.''

Dr Mattern had developed the cameras using off-the-shelf video cameras which would be attached to the shoulder-head area of the penguins by duct tape.

The tape held up in the water and was easily removable without damaging the birds' plumage.

The cameras had to be able to survive dives to 70m or 80m.

''If the cameras work we should have some pretty interesting video to show the world.''

About 20 penguins would be used in the trial and they would also be fitted with GPS data loggers to track their journeys and the depths of their dives.

The data loggers would also be used to track the movements of Fiordland crested penguins in a project starting next month.

Dr Mattern said it would be the first time such information had been collected on the crested penguins, whose numbers were declining.

''Before we start hypothesising we need basic information, which is what this study is about.''

Each of about 20 penguins would be tracked for five to six days in what he hoped was the start of a four-year project.

Funding for the work was ''scarce'' but would be helped by Dr Mattern supervising a Japanese film crew in Fiordland.

The Global Penguin Society had funded the data loggers.

Gathering that sort of information was important as the state of penguin populations was a good indicator for the health of the ocean, Dr Mattern said.

''Most penguin populations are going down the gurgler, so what does that say about the state of our oceans?''

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