Where to see wildlife in New Zealand

When it comes to wildlife, New Zealand is unique with its abundant, diverse and unlikely locals.

Located at the bottom of the planet, Aotearoa has a diverse range of landscapes in a country with a population tiny by world standards. With snowy alps, fjord-like sounds, volcanic plateaus, ancient forests and subtropical beaches, it’s no surprise New Zealand has equally diverse and abundant wildlife.

In balmy Northland at the top of the North Island, kayak, snorkel or dive to see rich marine life and unique flora and fauna as well as the tuatara – the world’s only surviving dinosaur. The volcanic plateau in the central North Island is home to beautiful and curious birds such as the North Island kōkako, kaka and brown kiwi as well as a variety of lizards. Further south, in the cooler southern waters, you’ll encounter marine mammals. Almost half the world’s cetaceans (whales, porpoises and dolphins) have been reported in New Zealand waters including the Hector’s dolphin, which is found nowhere else in the world.

Get up close with wildlife

If you want the benefit of expert guidance then take a tour at Zealandia, a remarkable urban eco-sanctuary in the hills of capital city Wellington, which is aiming to restore the area to a pre-human state within 500 years. Essentially a 225ha fenced valley, Zealandia has more than 40 native bird species living wild in the sanctuary – including the rare takahe – as well as tuatara and little spotted kiwi.

See the world’s smallest penguins in their natural environment at Oamaru in the South Island. The tiny blue penguins nest under a cliff right on the harbour, close to the historic township. It’s best to book a tour for early evening when the penguins amble up a stony ramp after a day’s fishing and head into the breeding colony. During the day, learn about the colony and the penguin’s feeding and breeding habits and anatomy from trained staff.

At the Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park near Hamilton in the upper North Island, you’re certain to see New Zealand’s star flightless native bird, including the rare great spotted member of the species. Time your visit for feeding times and also meet the musical tui, and social native parrots, kea and kaka, as well as long-fin eels and blue ducks.

At Pukaha Mt Bruce Sanctuary, near Masterton, there are lots of native birds including rare blue ducks but the rarest of them all is the little white kiwi Manukura - the first white kiwi to hatch in captivity. Manukura is pure white rather than albino and is the rare progeny of two parents who carry the same recessive white feather gene.

Swim with dolphins on a Dolphin Eco Experience with Fullers in the gorgeous Bay of Islands in Northland. On a half-day cruise you’ll get the chance to swim and snorkel in pristine waters alongside these majestic creatures. (Tour runs November-April.)

Take a rare opportunity to learn about the royal albatross at the world’s only mainland breeding colony at Taiaroa Head near Dunedin in the South Island. The world’s largest sea bird, the royal albatross usually breeds on remote islands and spends 85 per cent of its life at sea, away from curious human eyes. Visit during the breeding season between September and November to see the breeding birds arriving at the headland, building nests and even hatching their fluffy little ones.

See wildlife in the wild

New Zealand’s third and smallest island, Stewart Island, or Rakiura, is the one place that you can reliably expect kiwi to be active during the daytime. About 80 per cent of the 1680sq km Rakiura is national park and there are an estimated 20,000 kiwi on the island. While the iwi (tribe) is usually nocturnal, the Stewart Island brown kiwi, aka southern tokoeka, is unique because it is active during the day and night.

In the capital of Wellington, New Zealand fur seal colonies can be spotted just minutes from the city at the southern Red Rocks or on a longer day-trip to eastern Cape Palliser. While local colonies are mostly comprised of large males, mothers with pups are common from August through October.

Just across the water from Wellington on the very tip of the South Island, in the Nelson Tasman region, lies Farewell Spit - a fertile sand flat stretching out into Cook Strait that is famed the world over for its prolific migratory birdlife. Godwits, knots, turnstones and other Arctic waders are best viewed with Farewell Spit Eco Tours. The Australasian Gannet colony, a short way past the lighthouse, is New Zealand's newest and fastest growing mainland gannet colony. Unlike others, which are usually located on high rocky outcrops, this colony is on the sand, almost at sea level. The low-lying strip may not be the best place with rising sea levels and storm surges, but it's a handy spot for the gannet parents to fish and raise their young. 

Kayak or snorkel in the extinct volcanic crater that is Akaroa Harbour, near Christchurch, and you may just spot little penguins from the largest colony in mainland New Zealand, as well as Hector’s dolphins – the smallest marine dolphins in the world – and abundant birdlife.

Visit with whales

Kaikoura, in the South Island, is the whale-watching capital of New Zealand. Giant sperm whales can be seen here year-round but it is also possible to see humpbacks, southern rights, pilot and blue whales (the largest and loudest animal that has ever lived on Earth.) Whale Watch Kaikoura runs several trips daily and promises a 95 per cent success rate for spotting a whale.

In the nearby Marlborough district, you can find humpbacks at the edge of Cook Strait, and sometimes lazing in the Marlborough Sounds in winter months (June to August). E-Ko Tours take visitors out on the water to see dolphins, marine birds and in-season there are whale watching tours led by former whalers.