New Zealanders are lucky enough to share their home with fascinating creatures. There are plenty of opportunities to see them all year round – you might spot a family of dolphins following your boat, and it’s not unusual to see whales and orca within sight of Auckland or little blue penguins on Wellington’s city fringe – but these are some special places where you can see them up-close.
One of the best times to observe any wildlife is during the breeding cycles from spring through to early summer. And - here's a hint - if you go with a guide, you’ll have the best opportunity to find them because they know the best places and times to spot the locals at home.
Penguins - Oamaru
Many different kinds of these little birds – comical and clumsy on land, graceful and elegant in the water – can be found on the cooler fringes of New Zealand including in Akaroa, Stewart Island and the Marlborough Sounds. The South Island’s west coast is home to one of the world’s rarest penguins – the Fiordland Crested, which has a liking for some of the remotest parts of the country.
One of the best penguin spots is Oamaru, where you’ll see both the yellow-eyed penguin and the world’s smallest penguin, the little blue penguin. The yellow-eyed penguins are very shy, and are best spotted early morning or late afternoon from one of the public hides near the beaches. They gather in the largest numbers between September and February.
Air New Zealand has daily flights to nearby Timaru, a scenic one-hour drive from Oamaru. Book a daytime or evening tour of the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony with the official council-run operator. The Oamaru township has a thriving artisan centre in amongst the beautiful old limestone buildings.
Dolphins – Marlborough Sounds
From the tiny and distinctive Hector’s dolphin (a local national treasure) to the compact common dolphin and the sleek grey bottlenose, New Zealand’s coastlines are home to a wide range of dolphins. These playful and inquisitive creatures are often as interested in visitors as the visitors are in them, so it’s lucky that both groups have the chance to meet each other throughout the year. All three species are found in the Marlborough Sounds year round, and in the warmer summer months, there are often orca - the largest of the dolphin species - chasing stingrays around the bays as well.
Air New Zealand has daily flights to Blenheim from major centres. To swim with dolphins in the pristine, sheltered waters of the Marlborough Sounds book with Nature Tours. The region is famous for its sauvignon blanc vineyards as well as its beaches. The Queen Charlotte walking track, one of New Zealand’s best, runs through the Marlborough Sounds.
Whales - Kaikoura
Whales are giants of the sea but with many qualities that seem to make them human, something recognised in Maori myth and legend. Kaikoura is an iconic destination for those wanting to catch a glimpse of these incredible animals. From here, pods of sperm whales can be seen throughout the year but between June and August, things get really interesting. Other species of whale, such as the humpback, make their yearly migration from the Antarctic up to warmer climes, and the Kaikoura coast provides the perfect stopover for them.
Air New Zealand has daily flights to Christchurch. To swim with dolphins in the pristine, sheltered waters of the Marlborough Sounds book with Nature Tours. The region is famous for its sauvignon blanc vineyards as well as its beaches. The Queen Charlotte walking track, one of New Zealand’s best, runs through the Marlborough Sounds.
Albatross Colony – Otago Peninsula
No less an authority than British naturalist Sir David Attenborough has described the Otago Peninsula as “a very special place” and it’s not hard to see why. With the world’s only mainland breeding albatross colony at Taiaroa Head, it’s possible for visitors to see these majestic seabirds with a wingspan of more than three metres soaring at speeds of up to 120 km per hour. Visit between September and November to see the breeding birds arriving at the headland and building nests. Chicks hatch from late January to late February and, aided by a strong gust of wind, take their first flight in September.
Air New Zealand has daily flights to Dunedin. The Royal Albatross Centre, a 45-minute drive away at Taiaroa Head, offers free 60 and 90-minute tours. For an all-day tour that departs from Dunedin – and also offers the opportunity to see Hooker’s sea lions and Blue Penguins – try Elm Wildlife Tours. A university town with rich Scottish heritage, Dunedin is known for its impressive historic architecture and its buzzy nightlife.
Kiwi – Kapiti Island
For such a well-known New Zealand icon, the kiwi can be surprisingly elusive. This small, snuffly bird’s shyness and nocturnal habits can make spotting one a challenge. They are also endangered and threatened by predators such as dogs, cats and stoats, so seeing them wild is something only the lucky experience. They can be spotted in their native habitat at night on Stewart Island, off the bottom of the South Island, with the help of experienced guides such as Phillip Smith from Bravo Adventure Cruises.
To up your chances you might visit a sanctuary, such as Kapiti Island. Here, among a kiwi population of 1400, the bird is routinely seen on the island’s night tours and there is accommodation for overnight stays. Some wildlife parks, such as Christchurch’s Willowbank, have created artificial night-time environments, so visitors can walk (silently) through an enclosure within metres of the birds but it is also possible to see them in captivity at Auckland Zoo, Rainbow Springs in Rotorua and Kiwi Birdlife Park in Queenstown. If you want to see cute chicks in the breeding facilities, the best time to visit is September to April.
Kapiti Island is accessible by ferry from Paraparaumu, which is an hour’s drive from Wellington and the city’s international airport. The ferry ride and Department of Conservation permit required to visit the island can be organised through Kapiti Island Nature Tours.