New Zealand is one of the best countries in the world to spot wildlife. We have seen whales, dolphins, pinguïns, sealions, orca’s, stingrays and endangered parrots & birds. The thing is, usually you have to pay a lot of money for a bus tour, boat trip or guided walk. And there is nothing wrong with that, we just like to get up and close without the hordes of tourists. To make it a more unique experience so to say. Do you want the same? Have a look where we found cool wildlife encounters!
In New Zealand’s ancient wilderness there’s no shortage of amazing animals to see. Many of them are native to the country and there is a big chance to see some of them. The easiest way to see New Zealand’s animals is in wildlife sanctuaries and conservation reserves. However, nothing beats seeing them in their natural habitat. All below described places to spot wildlife are on the South Island.
You can spot a lot of wildlife on the North Island too, it’s just that we have seen a lot more in the south. We spotted wildlife on the North Island in: Bay of Islands (dolphins & pinguïns), Coromandel Peninsula, Muriwai Beach (Gannet colony) and Castlepoint (dolphins & seals).
Caring for wildlife
As much as we love encounters with wild animals, we see a lot of bad things happening too. And then we’re talking about people getting way to close to animals to take selfies, feeding them, leave rubbish or trying to touch them. This is not only bad for the animals, but it can be dangerous for you too! We share these places because it’s the best feeling to have a connection with a wild animal. That being said, we sincerely hope that anyone who meets these animals has respect and follows the below “rules”.
Keep your distance, we had a lot of situations where we were so close we could touch them (but obviously didn’t). This was because the animal was calm and decided to get closer to us instead of us humans pushing to get closer and invading their space. If an animal is far away, invest in good binoculairs or a camera with zoom lens (we have both).
Dolphins & Whales: Do not feed them. When swimming or kayaking do not approach them – they will come to you if they want to. Their skin is sensitive so please don’t touch them. We can transfer bacteria onto their skin that gets them sick and kills them!
Seals and Sea Lions: Keep a minimal distance of 10 metres and don’t block their path to water. Sea lions are not afraid of you and can move quickly. Do not disturb pups.
Penguins: Try to hide so penguins can’t see you. Move slowly and whisper when you are in pinguin territory. Keep to tracks or out of their pathway; never approach a nest. No flash photography. Don’t bring your dog, penguins smell irresistable to dogs and they will kill them.
Endangered Birds: Luckily birds are free to fly away if they get sick of us. Don’t feed birds to lure them closer, this will harm them. Best way to spot is to be quiet and stay still. Listen to their songs and learn to recognise which song belongs to which bird. Some have very specific songs which you will learn to know quickly.
Kaikoura is the whale watching capital of New Zealand, with year-round sightings of sperm whales. To see whales you will most likely have to go out with a boat tour. We did that as well, but found it rather dissapointing, we followed a spermwhale under water for over 1,5 hours until it came up for 5 minutes. You could only see the top of his back and when it dived his tail. Don’t get us wrong, it’s still beautiful to see, but just not what we expected.
We stayed in Kaikoura for over a week and have seen many dolphins, seals and even three orca’s! Just from the beach or rocky coastline. Because of the Kaikoura Canyon, the waters gets deep close to shore. Kaikoura roads are mainly along the shoreline so keep an eye out if your driving along those roads. The best places to see lots of sealions are at Point Kean Viewpoint and Ohau Point Look Out.
2. Arthur’s Pass
Driving from Christchurch on the east coast to the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand, brings you through Arthur’s Pass. This Natinal Park is the highest and most spectacular pass across the Southern Alps. In these high mountains and steep gorges lives the Kea, a naughty alpine parrot. They are highly intelligent and cheeky birds. If you park your car at the Otira Viaduct Lookout you will most likely meet them. The most common place to find them besides Arthur’s Pass is Milford Sound.
3. Cape Kidnappers
If you want to see some of the largest gannet colonies in the world, go to Cape Kidnappers, near Hawke’s Bay. Have you ever seen something that looked like a rocket diving into the ocean? This was probably a gannet. These majestic seabirds can dive into the ocean and are fascinating to watch. You can hike to the gannet colony or take a tour.
4. Marlborough Sounds
Marlborough Sounds has a range of natural wildlife and indigenous birds, insects and animals. It’s a great place to see dolphins, little blue penguins, seals and whales. A place that we found truly peaceful is Elaine Bay, hidden away in the sounds. There is a little campground surrounded by nature and it’s just perfect. Wake up to the sound of singing birds. From the jetty you can spot stingrays, sharks and more!
5. The Caitlins
Not many tourists go all the way south to the Caitlins, on the southern coastline near Invercargill. In this part of the South Island you can spot many marine wildlife especially at Curio and Porpoise bay. In the summer Hector’s dolphins play in the surf and can be spotted from the beach. You can even swim with them if they allow it. Porpoise Bay is unique in that it is the only place where dolphins come so close to the shore without being enticed by people feeding them. The Porpoise Bay population is small, with fewer than 20 resident animals. They use the bay to raise their young, feed and rest.
Yellow-eyed penguins nest in the area around Curio Bay and fur seals & sea lions are regularly seen in water along the coastline. Other great spots to see wildlife in the Caitlins are Roaring Bay (Nugget Point), Curio Bay, Long Point.
Forest-dwelling birds are found during all forest walking tracks in The Catlins and include Tui, Bellbird, Fantail, Tomtit, Brown Creeper and native Pigeon as well as the rare Mohua. Most birdlife can be spotted around Catlins lake, Tahakopa, Waikawa and Haldane.
6. Katiki Point, Moeraki
We found it most annoying that people/governments find it neccesary to turn something natural like pinguins returning to their nests into a tourist activity. Don’t get us wrong, we understand the money they ask is used mainly for conservation and education but still… it’s nature and we feel that nature is from everyone. We shouldn’t need to pay to see those things. So, instead of going to visit the “famous” blue pinguins in Oamaru, head to Moeraki instead.
Katiki Point is stunning with orange sandy beaches, rocky cliffs and wild ocean. There is a huge seal colony and we did see a rare yellow eyed penguin at this place. Penguins usually leave the nest for the sea early in the morning, returning late afternoon/early evening. You have to be patient, we waited for nearly two hours from 3.30 pm till 5.30 pm and just whe we were about to leave, a yellow-eyed penguin decided to get back home. It got as close as 3 meters from us, we wachted it for half an hour. In the meantime, there are stunning views, seabirds and sealions in the same area so you will not be bored.
7. Otago Peninsula, Dunedin
Otago Peninsula is home to New Zealand fur seals & sea lions, yellow-eyed & blue penguins and the only mainland royal albatross colony. The drive up to the Royal Albatross Centre is very scenic. Next to the centre is a great lookout at the Taiaroa Viewing Platform. You look out over the Pacific Ocean or back up the harbour basin to the City of Dunedin.
If you’re lucky, you can see the albatrosses flying or sitting on their nests. A lot of seagulls fly around as well. Just before the Royal Albatross Centre there’s Pilots Beach where usually some seals are relaxing in the sun. If you want to see the huge albatrosses up close, you need to book a tour which is quite expensive so we didn’t do it.
8. Abel Tasman National Park
As New Zealand’s smallest national park it’s definately not one to overlook. Abel Tasman park has golden-sand bays and lush coastal bush, crystal-clear waters and a world-famous walking track. We spend a couple of days in this natural paradise. The best beaches and bays from where you can spot wildlife are accesible by foot, although it can take a couple of hours to days. You have a better on the water, so if you own a kayak, this is the place to use it! We have seen furseals, dolphins, rays, native birds and penguins. Besides you can see a lot of animals, the surroundings are stunning. We can recommend staying in Abel Tasman Park for at least 2 nights.
Just a bit further north of Abel Tasman lies Wharariki Beach (most northern point near Archway Islands). We discovered this place by talking to other travelers and decided to take the trip. From Marahau, Abel Tasman it’s an two hour drive. Follow the main road all the way up to Collingwood and Farewell Spit, then to Wharariki Beach where you can park your car. Follow the track to the beach and in about 20 minutes you will see the sandy dunes and ocean. It is here where you find seal pups playing in the rockpools. The best time to see them is from December to April around low tide.