Dr Lance Richdale has been described as the father of albatross research and a world leader in seabird science generally. His meticulous and long-running studies of the yellow-eyed penguin, royal albatross and other seabirds were both epic and internationally acclaimed. He guarded the albatrosses of Taiaroa Head near Dunedin to ensure the first fledging in 1938 – a colony that thrives there today – and he wrote the world’s first long-term study of a seabird population, A Population Study of Penguins (Oxford University Press 1957).
Petrels also featured in his work. He camped for weeks at a time, often in atrocious weather, at tiny Whero Rock in Foveaux Strait, near Stewart Island/Rakiura, where the winds blew straight from Antarctica, to study five species of petrel, including the sooty shearwater or muttonbird.
Richdale never gave up his day job and carried out fieldwork in his spare time, mainly at weekends and school holidays. Known as ‘Mr Rich, the Nature Study Man’, he was employed as an itinerant teacher in Otago and visited schools in the region for over 30 years. He had an exceptional, if individualistic, talent for researching seabird biology and behaviour, and Time magazine, reviewing his 1951 book Sexual Behavior in Penguins (University of Kansas Press) dubbed him ‘The Dr Kinsey of the penguin world’.
After 1950 he pursued his research analyses and writing overseas, first as a Fulbright Fellow at Cornell University in New York State and later through Nuffield Fellowships in England. His wife, Agnes, a teacher from Northland, was his devoted field assistant, editorial adviser and typist.
Neville Peat’s biography searches the traces left by this shy and obsessed man for some answers to two questions: why? and what drove him? Richdale’s legacy is a nature tourism industry in Dunedin worth $100 million a year, and the longest-running seabird population study in the world.