The Otago Peninsula 2: The Albatross Centre

Following the Monarch boat trip, which I talked about last week, we took the guided tour the rest of the way up the Otago Peninsula to the Albatross Centre.

The Otago Peninsula is home to the only mainland albatross colony in the world, which is quite impressive! The 1 hour drive from town and the relative isolation of the point are somewhat conducive to the colony. The albatross usually only nest on small, isolated islands.

The albatross centre features a small gift shop, a cafe, a small museum and interpretive area, and guided tours up to the hide, a place to watch the albatross fly.

The Albatross

Nesting Albatross
Nesting Albatross

Albatross are the world’s largest seabird. Now, usually I’m not a big bird person (pun intended), but the chance to see these birds wasn’t to be missed! With a wingspan of up to 3 meters and double jointed wings, these were certainly interesting animals to watch.

They aren’t the most graceful of animals, especially considering that we were watching some of the younger albatross. The guide told us that they have been known to misjudge their take-offs and landings on occasion, sometimes faceplanting into the cliff-face.

While we were observing them, we did see a few aborted take-offs. Their wingspan is so massive that they actually need a good headwind to be able to take off. The Taiaroa head makes a perfect breeding location for the albatross since it’s location makes it a short walk to have a headwind regardless of the prevailing wind direction of the day.

Albatross lifecycle

Albatross come to land mainly to mate. They generally breed on remote islands and spend a majority of their life at sea. They spend their first 6 months of life on land, being fed by their parents. The chicks hatch in early February, with both parents taking turn guarding and feeding the chick.

View from Taiaroa Head
View from Taiaroa Head

The chick is fed until it is too heavy to fly so that it will survive its first few months of life without its parents.  Starting in August, the parents will return less and less often to feed the chick, encouraging it through hunger to test its wings and take flight on its own. At some point in early September the chick will take off in a strong wind and then not touch solid land for the next 3-5 years.

An albatross will travel up to 190 000 kilometers in a year, circumnavigating the earth and living solely at sea.  Eventually they will return to their breeding site to find their own mates. It is apparently quite funny watching the newly returned Albatross land as the chicks have never landed on solid ground before. Their legs are too weak to carry them and they spend the first week or so getting their land legs after their years at sea.

Albatross with its egg
Albatross with its egg

Albatross mate for life, with the adult pairs returning every 2 years to mate. The rest of their time is spent at sea, cruising on their 3.3 meter wingspan, resting in the water, and eating up to 2kg of squid and octopus per day.

Our Tour

Our tour started with about 30 minutes to explore the interpretive centre and gift shop, as well as time to grab a nice cup of tea from the cafe to warm up. It was a slightly chilly and windy day when we went and we were both feeling a bit of a chill from being out on the Monarch.

Following our free time, we were invited into a private viewing area where we were instructed on the Albatross life cycle and learn other information about these great sea birds. They also showed us an interesting video about the albatross.

Albatross in flight
Albatross in flight

We were then taken up to the Albatross hide, which involved a short walk past the Taiaroa prison and up a short hill. It might have been a slight challenge for those with limited mobility, but scooters or wheelchairs ought to be able to manage it.

The hide was quite interesting. It featured large glass windows on most sides so that it was easy to see the albatross. They also had a webcam with a live feed of an albatross nest, which was quite interesting. We had a great view of the albatross flying past and I would have loved to stay up there longer.

On the way back down, we had the chance to see baby seagulls as well. Apparently there are several different breeds of seagull, one of which is actually endangered and lives in New Zealand.  They were actually kinda cute in an ugly sort of way.

My 'wingspan' compared to an albatross
My ‘wingspan’ compared to an albatross

It was definitely quite a treat to see such amazing animals up close.

Our Immigration Journey (so far!)

So, as many of our friends and family have heard by now, Andrew and I finally got issued our invitation to apply for our visa! We are exceptionally excited for this next step in the process.  It’s certainly been a long road so far and it isn’t over yet!

Now, before I get too far, I should also make the disclaimer that the visa information found here is just about our journey and for actual immigration advice, you should talk to a professional immigration advisor or see the Immigration New Zealand Website.

How it all started

It all started for us many years ago.  Andrew and I like to discuss our future together to make sure that we are both still happy with the path our life is taking and make whatever changes we needed to make in order to get where we wanted. What things were a priority to us? Family? Friends? Game Nights? Good jobs? Kids? New cars? Extended Vacations?  House? Retirement goals?

Calgary

We never intended to leave Calgary and were indeed quite happy there. Growing up in that city meant we knew it well and knew what to expect. We had a good network of friends. Our families are there.

However, after nearly 6 months of job searching and a steadily increasing negative bank account, we were getting somewhat desperate for a job. Any job. We were applying to every posting we could find whether it was for engineering or fast food! I eventually got a job that took us to Medicine Hat.

Medicine Hat

We had been happy in Medicine Hat and had actually gotten bank pre-approval for a mortgage. We were shopping around for a home and making plans to start a family. It took Andrew a lot of work to convince me that I couldn’t go to the SPCA for a puppy until we’d actually signed a mortgage agreement. We thought that it was ideal since at only 3 hours from Calgary we could still visit for important events and family could visit us as well.

Of course, those plans fell apart when we were suddenly faced with a choice between unemployment or a move to Regina. We looked around for jobs in Medicine Hat but had no luck. Andrew had searched for 7 months prior to joining Halliburton so knew there were few job prospects for him as well. Off to Regina we went!

Regina

We knew that we weren’t happy where we were. While we had found a wonderful sense of community with the gym we grew to love, Regina simply wasn’t a good fit for us. We had many great friends and have amazing memories from the city. We worried about the crime rate. Both Andrew and I absolutely hated the cold, which was 6 months of the year.

Even as close as Regina was, very few people were interested in making the drive out to visit in the 2 years that we lived there, mainly because there was very little there! It definitely felt like a very one sided relationship when we packed up the car every other week though. It was fun when my parents came out, but after 1 week we had seen everything there was to see.

We were absolutely miserable in our jobs. While the pay was excellent, the lifestyle was not. When you need to force yourself not to call the boss and tell him where he can locate his truck and work computer because you are so sick of the job that you are willing to walk 900km back home, it isn’t worth it. When your manager tells you that they don’t care that you’ve worked 13 hours, you still need to drive 9 hours in a snowstorm to be on site for 6:30am the next day (even after 2 guys died 3 months earlier by falling asleep at the wheel), the job isn’t worth it. When you go visit your uncle for dinner after work and he asks how your day is and you can’t stop sobbing on his shoulder for the next hour…the job isn’t worth it. Some people manage, and even excel in those environments, but it wasn’t the right fit for Andrew or myself. It was actually a relief when they closed the office, for all that it made our future so uncertain.

Andrew and I started looking at other cities in Canada and applying for other jobs about 9 months prior to leaving Regina. Winnipeg, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Kelowna, and Vancouver, along with several other smaller cities were all on our list. We also looked at jobs in different fields in Regina. Some companies were polite enough to give us rejection letters, but most offered nothing but silence despite our best efforts to network.

We started to expand our search further abroad, looking at immigration to the UK, USA, New Zealand, Belize, and other countries as possibilities that might let us find engineering jobs.

Andrew and I considered making Regina our home since the friends we had and the sense of community outweighed most the negatives. We thought about picking up odd jobs in hospitality, tutoring, or in retail just so we could leave the jobs we were in while still making enough for a house and a family.  We talked to the bank and, although it took us 45 minutes to convince them that we indeed did not have any debt, we walked out with our mortgage pre-approved and started to look at houses.

Then the layoffs happened…(notice a trend here?!).

 Our Immigration Process

Who would move to a country they’ve never even visited? Well, we did consider it to begin with, but we decided that it would be much smarter to visit the country first. We had been to the USA and the UK previously, so next on the list was New Zealand.

We had talked about and planned on taking our 2 weeks of vacation to visit New Zealand in 2016 to see if it might work for us. At that point we were considering it as more of a fallback, vacation home, or a potential retirement location. Of course, when we got laid off in 2015, our plans changed. After a few weeks of additional research, we discovered the Working Holiday Visa.

Working Holiday Visa

The Working Holiday visa is intended for 18-35 year olds to take a ‘gap-year’ and see New Zealand while being able to supplement their income through work abroad. Not many people can afford to simply travel for a year without some kind of income! For Canadian citizens, the visa offers a 12 or 23 month temporary work visa with a few restrictions.

Andrew and I made the move to New Zealand and started getting a feel for the area. We applied for several engineering jobs and got several polite rejection letters. No worries, let’s see the country!

Over the next 12 months we fell in love with the country and eventually sought immigration advice. I had done research prior to coming here (because I over-research and over-plan absolutely everything), but immigration is ridiculously confusing.

Contingency Plans

We knew our visa would run out in 9 months (end of August 2017) so we started making contingency plans. We looked at the Australia working holiday visa. We considered the UK working holiday visa. We planned to take a cruise from Australia to Canada since it seemed a more interesting way to end our trip than a simple flight (and about the same price!). We had a friend offer to sponsor us for a visa in Samoa. We looked into immigration requirements for several Pacific Islands.

Did I mention I over-plan everything? I even made a flow chart to keep track of our options.

We also started applying for jobs in Canada again. The economy was recovering, so maybe it was a good time to head back. We figured if we could get a decent job then we would consider leaving New Zealand early. Using my parents’ address, we submitted dozens of applications and follow ups to most of the jobs we could find across Canada over the past 6 months or so. The result? NOTHING. No luck on that front yet!

Skilled Migrant Residency Visa

We had looked at the skilled migrant visa before but visas are extremely complicated. There is a reason many immigration advisors will charge several thousand dollars just to help you with the first step!

EOI

We decided to cover all of our bases. We have jobs and a good lifestyle here, so it made sense to do what we could to stay in New Zealand if we could.

At the end of December, Andrew and I submitted our Expression of Interest (EOI). This is basically a form that you submit to tell immigration that “Hey, I’d like to apply for your visa and I think I’m qualified!”. You get awarded a certain number of points for different things like a job offer, your age, your skills, etc.

The application then goes into the pool of applicants for up to 6 months. Every 2 weeks, they draw the top applicants from the pool that are above a certain point threshold.

Our EOI was selected December 21, 2016. Almost as soon as we had applied! We were very excited.

Then our application entered stage 2 – Verification. We got an email that stated that our application was selected and that immigration would verify some details. After their verification in 2-4 weeks, we may be issued an invitation to apply for the visa.

ITA

We did it! We got issued our ITA (Invitation to Apply) on January 11, 2017. So what now? Well, we now have up to 4 months to gather and submit all of the required paperwork to prove all of the things that we said we had. So if you are our family or friends and you get a really weird request…there is a reason.

The visa itself is called the “Skilled Migrant” for a reason. We both are currently working in what is considered to be skilled employment: Andrew as a sous-chef and myself as an assistant manager. We need to stay in our current jobs until after we get our visa, although they are sufficient for our current needs and both rewarding and fulfilling. Of course, we both still want engineering jobs, but so far that hasn’t worked out in any country yet!

Of course, this also requires proving that we have the experience for these jobs. Reference letters, employment contracts, tax forms, and such are one of the requirements. For every job we’ve had basically. They also all need to be genuine originals or certified copies (by a JP or notary). Convincing my manager that I actually required my original employee agreement took a bit of work.

We also need to prove that our relationship is genuine and stable. In addition to the marriage certificate we need to provide tenancy agreements, shared bills, photographs, letters from family and friends, a letter from ourselves, and other proof.

Getting fingerprints from outside of the country is also a special (and expensive!) treat. Around $250 each so that we can take fingerprints here, mail them there, get them scanned there, submitted to the RCMP, and then have our criminal record mailed back.

I can definitely see why immigration advisors said they charge around $10,000 to assist with this stage of the process. We are trying to do it on our own and doing lots of research and reading to keep from making any mistakes. I think immigration might know us better than we know ourselves by the end of this process!

We want to try to get all of the paperwork in as soon as we can so we can get to stage 3!!

The Waiting Game

Once we submit our paperwork, it will take 3-9 months (although sometimes longer) for Immigration NZ to make their decision. They will review all of our paperwork, request anything we may have missed that they want to see (hopefully we get it all!), and, hopefully, issue our visa.

Did I mention that our current visa expires at the end of August (7 months from now)? We will cross that bridge if/when we get to it.

If (hopefully when!) they issue our visa, Andrew and I will be New Zealand residents (I think). We will be welcome to come and go from the country, gain access to medical care, and basically able to do most things that native New Zealander’s can.

Remember how I mentioned our current visa has a few restrictions? Well, one of those restrictions is that we can only work on a casual basis. We currently aren’t able to apply for any permanent employment. Which, unfortunately, most engineering jobs are advertised as permanent roles. Most employers don’t want to have to deal with immigration and visas (rightly so!), which makes Andrew and I hopeful that a resident class visa will make it easier to get one of the plethora of engineering jobs available in the city.

Citizenship

As far as I understand (have I mentioned visa’s are complicated?), after 2 years of spending the majority of our time in New Zealand, we are welcome (invited?) to apply for citizenship. At this point, we would have all the rights of a New Zealand Citizen.

We would also be able to keep our Canadian Citizenship, becoming dual citizens. This would allow us to move back and forth between Canada and New Zealand (and possibly Australia).

Why New Zealand?

For us, New Zealand made sense for a number of reasons.

  1. The weather. The coldest temperature that we’ve seen in winter was -5C overnight. Even the day we went skiing at Treble Cone was barely 0C!. The ocean is relatively warm as well, making water sports much more pleasant. While it is possible to exercise and stay fit in the cold weather, it is much nicer and easier to go running year round here instead of being stopped by well meaning people telling me that running at -20C will freeze my lungs!
  2. The lifestyle. Imagine hiking paths within 20 minutes of the city. Surfing. Swimming. Kite surfing. Windsurfing. Sailing. Running. Cycle paths everywhere. Miles of beaches. Where electric bikes are a feasible alternative to cars. Mountains and skiing just 1 hour away. Andrew and I love being active and would like to raise active kids through experiential learning.
  3. The community. We have lived in places in Canada where the neighbours barely speak. Where the kids aren’t allowed outside on their own for fear of the parents being called neglectful. Where we are living now we have a number of friends who are always willing to do things. There are always kids out riding their bikes and running around, grandparents out for a Sunday bike down the harbour, couples out with their dogs. The community and the city are just alive and vibrant. It’s almost like stepping back 50 years to the way small towns used to be, except Dunedin is a big city with modern technology that just hasn’t quite gotten the memo not to be a small town anymore.
  4. Housing opportunity. It is possible for Andrew and I to buy a 5 acre section with ocean views, 20 minutes drive from downtown, 15 minutes from a sandy beach, and build a brand new house on it…for less than $250,000! We are somewhat excited about the possibility of being mortgage free in 2-10 years (depending on our jobs), and the opportunities that will bring for our family. We would love to raise our (possible future) kids as global citizens, taking them to actually see historical sites and learn by doing instead of just in a classroom if we can.
  5. Tied in with housing is the growing season. Fresh fruits and vegetables are available year round. Most people have chickens providing fresh eggs every day. Both Andrew and I have noticed that we have more energy, feel healthier, and eat better for cheaper since moving here.
  6. Creative kids. New Zealand has one of the top universities in the world and the kids here are quite smart. However…they aren’t walking around with their phones glued to their ears. It is just as likely to see a group of teenagers shouldering their backpacks for a nice day hike as it is to see them hanging out at the mall. In addition to Physical Education at school, there is also outdoor education where kids are encouraged to find sports to keep them active throughout their lives. Recess is encouraged and both the trades and creative pursuits still play a huge part in normal schooling.
  7. Healthcare that is at least as good as in Canada, if not better. The couple of times that I have had to go to a doctor in New Zealand for a regular check up, they have sat down, truly listened, and offered far better advice than I have ever gotten from a doctor in Canada.

The Hardest Parts

Family and friends. We are nothing without our support network and we still rely heavily on our family and friends back home for love and support.

It is, of course, very difficult for them and us to be so far apart, but thankfully technology makes it far easier. I can hardly imagine doing this 100 years ago when people simply boarded a boat and probably never saw their families again! There are a couple of good websites, like this one,  with advice for parents and adult expat children, thankfully.

We are planning to visit as often as we can and hope that our families will return the favour, especially once we (hopefully) have kids. There is a Parent and Grandparent Visitor visa for a reason after all!

Perhaps we will invite our parents to fly down to NZ and cruise back to Canada with us since it is probably easier to contain a toddler on a boat than it is in a plane seat. We have 4 weeks of vacation as a normal part of Kiwi employment agreements, which will make travel easier.

Plus, considering that we could conceivably pay off a mortgage in 2-10 years, we would be able to travel a lot more. We are hoping to pay for our nieces’ and nephews’ plane tickets for them to come see Auntie and Uncle for a summer once they are old enough (16 is old enough, right? Or maybe 18?).

We also invested in the Disney Vacation club this year, which gives us Disney vacations about every 3 years. We are hoping to head to Hawaii in December this year if everything works out and are already planning our next trip back to Calgary.

In Conclusion

One of my friends keeps reminding me that all decisions can be changed and life is in a constant state of flux. It is usually better to grasp an opportunity while it is there than to spend your entire life wondering “What if?”.

We spent enough time regretting our decisions when we were working at our last jobs in Canada that we are excited to have found a passion for life again. It feels like everything is finally starting to settle into place and we are hopeful about our future again.

The Otago Peninsula 1: Monarch Boat Cruise

The Otago Peninsula is situated on the east coast of the south island. It creates a 20km long harbour that boasts a variety of sea-life as well as a beautiful recreational area for the local community.

Andrew and I have been living on the mainland side of the harbour. We often make use of the harbour cycleway to get to and from the city. We have also been dreaming about buying a nice large section of land on the far side of the peninsula.

Seabird Colony
Seabird Colony

The peninsula itself is home to a rich and colourful history. Larnach castle, which I mentioned in a previous post, is situated on the peninsula, as are the disappearing gun and a large variety of wildlife.

Andrew and I had the opportunity recently to take part in the Sundowner adventure evening, which featured a tour of the peninsula in addition to up-close encounters with some amazing wildlife.

Peninsula History

The first part of the tour involved a driving tour up the peninsula towards the penguin and albatross centre at Taiaroa Head, the tip of the peninsula. The tour guide pointed out several features of the peninsula, including its volcanic origin. Around 13 million years ago the peninsula was formed by several volcanoes that are now dormant. It’s easy to see the remaining cones and imagine what the area could have been like.

Army Fortifications for the Russian Invasion
Army Fortifications for the Russian Invasion

The harbour itself is quite shallow, sitting at about 30 meters at its deepest point, and requires constant dredging to make it suitable for the ship traffic that comes into Port Chalmers and Dunedin port.

The peninsula was home to a small group of Maori people as early as 1300 AD. Taiaroa head was home to a Maori fortress in 1650, with many of their defensive structures utilized and co-opted by later European defensive works.

Gannets and Fur Seals
Gannets and Fur Seals

James Cook was sighted off the coast in 1770 as part of his explorations of New Zealand, although he didn’t actually land in the Dunedin area. Sealer’s and whalers soon discovered the plentiful wildlife of the peninsula, forming a community in the area.

Taiaroa Head Lighthouse
Taiaroa Head Lighthouse

The gold rush in Dunedin in the 1860’s further developed the peninsula and brought buildings such as Larnach Castle and the Lighthouse at Taiaroa head. Following fears of a Russian invasion in the 1880’s Taiaroa head was extensively fortified, including the installation of the now famous Armstrong Disappearing gun.

Monarch Boat Cruise

Near the end of our drive, we stopped at a small harbour just past the community of Portobello. One of the best ways to see some of the marine life is, of course, by boat. Monarch offers several boat trips each day, ranging from full day excursions to 1-2 hour trips to see the local wildlife.

The Monarch Boat
The Monarch Boat

As part of the Sundowner tour, Andrew and I did the 1 hour excursion, which allowed plenty of time to see everything. While it is occasionally possible to see whales, we weren’t so fortunate. Humpback whales, blue whales, and Minke whales are relatively common off the coast. Several species of dolphins, as well as sperm whales and orca are also occasionally seen.

Gannets ashore
Gannets ashore

We were fortunate enough on our tour to see a large male sea lion sunning himself on the shore, as well as several fur seals. We were even fortunate enough in our timing to see a number of baby seals, which were absolutely adorable.

Albatross on the water
Albatross on the water

There were also two colonies of shore birds, gannets, as well as a breeding colony of seagulls. Usually I don’t like seagulls very much due to their reputation of scavenging garbage and the general nuisance that they tend to make of themselves. The baby ones were actually kinda cute though.

Flying albatross
Flying albatross

The boat trip was also a good chance to see the Albatross from the water. Watching them gliding past the lighthouse with their amazing wingspan was quite impressive. Even more impressive was watching them take off from the water! I’ll talk more about the albatross in my next post.