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The secret life of the tawaki, New Zealand's marathon penguin

Extracts from illustrator Giselle Clarkson’s comic about the rare tawaki penguin; her work has reached a global audience, and is part of a trend among scientists to use comics as a communication tool.

Thanks to the Tawaki Project, we’re finally getting a glimpse into the world of New Zealand’s intrepid and mysterious rainforest-dwelling penguin.

Cloaked in the persistent mist and lush green of Fiordland, the tawaki is an oddity. It doesn’t live in dense, squawking colonies, instead opting for secluded hideaways nestled in the dense bush.

While other penguin species captivate scientific and public attention alike, tawaki have flown – or, rather, swum and waddled – under the radar. “We knew literally nothing about them, beyond what they look like and perhaps how they behave when they’re at the nest,” says Dr Thomas Mattern, principal investigator of the Tawaki Project.

The project was launched five years ago as the first long-term scientific study of the tawaki. Also known as the Fiordland penguin, it’s one of three penguin species that breed on the New Zealand mainland, the other two being the kororā (little blue penguin) and hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin).

Chief among the unknowns is where tawaki go while at sea. To investigate, Mattern and the team tracked the birds between the breeding and moulting seasons, an all-important time for them to fatten up. What they discovered shocked them: the 60cm-tall tawaki travels up to 7000km to feed in sub-Antarctic waters.

“They’re actually swimming past a mega-buffet of food just to go to the sub-Antarctic,” says Mattern. “It’s all pretty strange, but there seems to be an inner voice telling them, ‘You have to go there now.’”

Armed with this dazzling discovery, Mattern opted to forego the usual press release, instead hiring “adventure illustrator” Giselle Clarkson to transform the research into a comic strip. “She’s funny as hell,” he says. “I just knew it was going to be hilarious.”

Clarkson was immediately onboard, especially as she’d previously assisted with some tawaki field work. “I got to spend ages observing the penguins and understanding their environment… and getting crapped on,” she laughs. “When it came to doing the comic, it made it so much easier to capture atmosphere and personalities.”

Comics are an emerging trend in science communication, with Clarkson leading the field here in New Zealand. In addition to her tawaki work, she’s produced comics on hoiho for Mattern, on whitebait for Auckland Zoo, and on the sub-Antarctic for the School Journal. Overseas, illustrator Maki Naro creates “fan art for science” that guides readers through a variety of complex topics, including the work of New Zealand researcher Dr Siouxsie Wiles.

Clarkson welcomes the trend. “It’d be cool if more scientists saw comics as the way to go for communicating their research,” she says. “They’re really approachable. It’s easier to put a bit of humour in.”

With such broad appeal, it’s no wonder the four-panel tawaki comic has captured attention, reaching a global audience of thousands with its intrepid penguin tale. And there are still tales to be told: a new round of satellite tracking aims to discover what tawaki do after moulting. “Once they finish the moult, they disappear for three months and nobody knows where they go,” says Mattern.

With five years of data recorded, the team is gradually uncloaking the secret life of tawaki. “They’re definitely not the ‘least-known’ penguin species anymore, but they are still the most enigmatic. There is no penguin species that is more secretive, more difficult to find, and more difficult to work with – and that’s not going to change.”

This article was first published in the June 2019 issue of North & South.

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