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Bells ring in return of albatross

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Each spring enjoy the sounds of bells ringing throughout Dunedin, a unique tradition which marks the return of the albatross to the Otago Peninsula for breeding season.

Hoani Langsbury standing on the steps at the entrance to Otakou Marae on a clear day
Northern Royal Albatross in flight
Group of people ringing bells standing in front of the Donaghys Gallery at the Albatross Centre

Every year, when springtime rolls around, a delightful tradition takes place in Ōtepoti Dunedin, but its origin seem to remain a bit of a mystery.

No one seems totally sure on why or when it started, but for the last few decades, when the northern royal albatross return to Pukekura/Taiaroa Head after a year at sea, it’s been a Dunedin tradition to ring in the return of the wandering toroa for the breeding season.

The bell tower situated at the side of St Pauls Cathedral

The return of these majestic seabirds (and no they’re not “just big seagulls") is marked by an echoing of the bells of marae, churches, schools, and other public buildings throughout Ōtepoti Dunedin.

Even the odd, small handheld bell is shaken to ring in the occasion.

Albatross resting on the grassy mainland on a clear day with two other albatrosses in the background

Toroa hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Dunedin and Dunedin holds a special place in the lives of the toroa.

They can spend 85% of their lives across the ocean, akin to many young New Zealanders who take a gap year to travel overseas.

Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula is the only place in the world where you can see these creatures on the mainland.

The chain of bells starts off in the Whare Karakia at Ōtākou Marae, followed by the historic churches of the city, before hundreds of school children take part with their own small bells. It is a tradition unique to Dunedin.

The Royal Albatross Centre itself has a collection of antique bells that staff use for the occasion.

St Pauls Cathedral from the bottom of the front steps looking up to the church with the sun peaking from behind

Throughout Dunedin, the Wildlife Capital of New Zealand, you can see motifs of this celebrated endangered bird species, from the stained-glass windows of St Paul’s Cathedral to street art murals, bus stops in the bays of the peninsula and even hanging from the ceiling of a mall in the central city.

The ringing of the bells is a reminder these creatures are a unique and important part of Dunedin.

Find out more about Dunedin wildlife and conservation charities.