Dunedin – wildlife capital of New Zealand

Dunedin’s claim to ‘wildlife capital of New Zealand’ has had a rather cheeky endorsement from a sea lion that joined surprised locals for a dip in the heated salt water pools.

Evidently not content with the surging tide on Dunedin’s favourite surf beach, the playful male sea lion somehow made its way through the automatic front door and on past the ticket office of the Hot Salt Water Pools in the beachside suburb of St Clair. The non-paying customer then proceeded to frolic in the warm water and engage in a little ‘catch me if you can’ with the pool attendants before exiting by the front door. 

New Zealand sea lions – one of the rarest species of sea lion in the world – are only found in New Zealand, according to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. They are found mainly on beaches in Otago and Southland in the South Island, and in New Zealand’s subantarctic islands.

The university city of Dunedin is the main centre of southern New Zealand’s Otago region. It sits in a spectacular natural landscape, on the edge of Otago Harbour and the Otago Peninsula – a hub for wildlife tourism.

World renowned environmentalist Sir David Bellamy has described the Otago Peninsula as “the finest example of eco-tourism in the world”.  

Visitors to Otago Peninsula have a diverse range of rare wildlife observation opportunities  - from New Zealand fur seal and sea lion, to rare yellow-eyed penguin and the world’s smallest penguin - the little blue, as well as the world’s only mainland colony of the royal albatross, and all within a 30-minute drive from Dunedin’s city centre.  

The recommended way to make the most of these attractions is on a tour hosted by passionate and knowledgeable guides who have expert local knowledge and private access to the best wildlife viewing spots. There are several tourism operators offering tours on and off the water.

Royal Albatross Centre & little blue penguin at Pukekura

The Royal Albatross Centre – at Taiaroa Head on the exposed eastern tip of Otago Peninsula – is the only mainland-based albatross breeding ground in the world. Visitors can experience the exhilaration of having a huge northern royal albatross with a three-metre wingspan glide effortlessly and silently over their heads or landing in front of their cameras. 

Guided tours offer excellent opportunities for viewing these magnificent birds, whilst the world-class visitor centre had superb educational displays on albatross and other wildlife species present at Taiaroa Head, including New Zealand fur seal, blue penguin, spotted shag, and royal spoon bill.

Discover kororā / little blue penguin - the world's smallest penguin in their natural habitat of cliff-face burrows at nearby Pilots Beach. After a day at sea, little groups of penguin congregate as ‘rafts’ just offshore where they often can be heard vocalising with short, loud squawks. At dusk, penguins swim into shore, scurrying uphill to their nests to feed chicks or roost.

Penguin Place – Yellow-eyed penguin

At Penguin Place, visitors can discover why the quirky yellow-eyed penguin is the world’s most endangered penguin species, found only on the south-east coast of New Zealand. 

Small groups of visitors are taken on a short off-road trip across a private farm to the sanctuary, then guided on foot through special covered trenches into viewing hides. These allow close viewing and photography of the breeding behaviour and young chicks of this shy penguin. 

Natures Wonders – Penguin Beach

Natures Wonders is a private conservation programme funded by guided wildlife tours. Visitors are taken to a viewing spot over Penguin Beach – a reserve area of natural habitat, devoid of any human modification – via a special 8-wheel-drive Argos machine that has been designed to respect the environment. 

The off-road tour, which takes in a spectacular coastline and amazing vistas of Otago Harbour, is perfect for all ages and fitness levels. Expert guides share their knowledge on this unique wildlife habitat for rare yellow-eyed and blue penguin, New Zealand fur seals, and cormorant among others. 

Orokonui Ecosanctuary 

Orokonui  Ecosanctuary– in hill country within easy reach of Dunedin – is a New Zealand bush wildlife experience where native flora and fauna thrive in a combination of original untouched forest (which shelters New Zealand’s tallest tree) and regenerating farmland that has been cleared of exotic predators. 

From the spectacular visitor centre – an award-winning architectural statement of eco-design – visitors can take a variety of guided tours or meander along various tracks through the forest, serenaded by birdsong. 

Monarch Wildlife Cruises & Tours 

For a cruisy on-the-water experience, Monarch Wildlife’s boat takes visitors out into Otago Harbour, and around Taiaroa Head for a different view of the huge variety of wildlife that make their home on Otago Peninsula.  The cruise back into Dunedin takes in New Zealand’s most photogenic harbour.