Penguin crossing concern

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Large crowds spilling on to Waterfront Rd to view blue penguins coming ashore is proving a safety concern for both the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony and the Waitaki District Council.

In a letter to the editor printed in yesterday’s Oamaru Mail, Totara’s P. D. R. Lindsay described the scene as “bedlam” on Thursday evening.

“You should have seen the cars parked everywhere, people rushing after the penguins, the volunteers trying to protect the penguins and get them across the road. It was a mess,” she said.

Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher, who was at a function at Portside Restaurant across the road from the penguin colony, witnessed the crowds on Thursday night and had serious concerns for their safety.

He went back on Friday evening and said he was shocked at the sight of lines of people wearing dark clothing sitting across the width of Waterfront Rd, forcing cars and buses to drive around them.

“It’s not a safe situation,” he said.

“Primarily my concerns are around safety, both of the visitors and the welfare of the penguins. It has been brought up in the past, but it brought home to me seeing it on Thursday and Friday night just how busy it is there. The potential for some real harm is very real.”

He was also concerned about how the crowds were being managed.

Mr Kircher said council, which owns the land around the penguin colony, and Tourism Waitaki, which manages the colony, will need to have serious discussions about improving the safety of visitors and ensuring the welfare of the penguins.

“We’ll have to look at what sort of things we can do to alleviate the congestion there. We’re victims of our own success to a certain extent. We’ve got to do better in regards to how the penguins and people are managed in that area.”

Mr Kircher has been in contact with Tourism Waitaki general manager Jason Gaskill, who is believed to be meeting with the colony’s volunteers in the near future.

The volunteers are independent of the colony, however Mr Kircher said there is a case for working more closely with them to ensure a better experience for everyone involved.

When that meeting has happened, Mr Kircher has requested a meeting with Mr Gaskill and council chief executive Michael Ross to determine how to best manage the issue.

“Part (of the meeting) is to be around car parking and dealing with that situation to ensure it’s done safely.

“Another part is around the management of the people to make sure they’re kept safe. We’re certainly not looking to stop them from viewing the penguins for nothing, it’s about ensuring their safety.”

He said the installation of traffic bollards and roping-off areas is a possible.

An option which appears less likely, but has been mooted in the past, is to allow cars to park on railway land several hundred metres away from the colony and take people there by bus or train.

However, Mr Kircher said any potential action taken would have to be discussed with the owner of Portside Restaurant, and the nearby North Otago Yacht and Powerboat Club and Scotts Own Sea Scouts.

Mr Gaskill was unable to be contacted for comment by the Oamaru Mail, however in response to yesterday’s letter he said he shared concerns raised about crowds on Waterfront Rd and has expressed his desire to work with council and other interested groups on how best to address the problem.

By Daniel Birchfield