8 best and free places to see wildlife in New Zealand
New Zealand is well known for being the only country in the world where you can see the almost mythical kiwi bird in the wild, but the country is home to so many more other exotic wildlife species that you’re going to want to see. In this blog post, we’ve listed the 8 best and free places to see wildlife in New Zealand.
In the table below you’ll find a quick overview of which animal can be found where, and below the table we go into detail about each region.
|Catlins||Otago Peninsula||Stewart Island||Northland||Tasman Bay & Marlborough Sounds||Kaikoura||Fiordland||Akaroa|
|Little blue penguins||X||X||X||X|
|Fiordland crested penguins||X|
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The Catlins are often regarded as too much of a detour to be included in New Zealand travel itineraries, but if you’d like to see some extremely rare wildlife, you really should make the detour. The Catlins are your best bet for catching a glimpse of the yellow-eyed penguin, the rarest penguin in the world. They are regularly spotted in Roaring Bay (next to Nugget Point) where DOC even built an observation shelter to watch them from. Another location where your chances of spotting them are relatively high is Curio Bay. We went to Roaring Bay on two consecutive days and spent quite some time gazing over the bay without seeing any yellow-eyed penguins, but did have more luck in Curio Bay, where we saw two of them.
Curio Bay, or actually Porpoise Bay on the other side of the Curio Bay Cliffs, is also an awesome spot to see and even swim with the super playful Hector’s dolphins, the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world. Pods of Hector’s dolphin often feed in the bay and play in the waves. If you go in the water, chances are pretty high that they’ll come to play around you.
The Catlins is also home to many seals and sea lions. They are most often seen on the cliffs around Nugget Point, in Cannibal Bay, Purakaunui Bay, and around the Waipapa Lighthouse.
The Otago Peninsula is the long finger of land that stretches to the east of Dunedin. On the northern point of this peninsula, you’ll find the Royal Albatross Centre and the Blue Penguins Pukekura. While you have to pay to go in and see the blue penguins, you can see the royal albatross outside flying over the sea and the coastal cliffs of the peninsula. Just be careful that they don’t poop on you as they fly over (we’ve seen it happen, really).
If you don’t feel like paying to see the blue penguins, but still want a chance to see them in the wild, then head to Long Beach, on the other side of the Otago Harbour. Little blue penguins, the smallest and let’s be honest, the cutest penguin in the world often hide in the Long Beach Sea Cave, on the northern end of Long Beach.
Stewart Island is New Zealand’s third island and lies 30 kilometres south of the South Island. Stewart Island is still largely untouched, and therefore the crème de la crème for wildlife in New Zealand. It is also by far the best place to spot the elusive kiwi bird and it is estimated that out of the approximately 68.000 kiwi birds in the world, about 25.000 reside on Stewart Island.
If you want to increase your chances of seeing a kiwi bird in the wild, head to Ulva Island bird sanctuary. Over 50% of the people that went to Ulva Island have spotted a kiwi there, we even saw two of them in broad daylight! Ulva Island is also home to many other rare bird species.
On Stewart Island, you’re also likely to see seals, sea lions and albatrosses. If you head to the wharf just after dark, you might get lucky and see little blue penguins on the rocks, and whales and great white sharks swim in the waters between Stewart Island and the South Island. The island is also home to Kakapo, the funny-looking and only nocturnal and flightless parrots in the world, but unfortunately access to them is restricted. A few years ago the locally famous and cheeky Kakapo Sirocco was shown to the public.
When it comes to wildlife, New Zealand’s North Island gets completely overshadowed by the South Island, but in the Northland area, there is still some interesting wildlife to be seen. The Bay of Islands is a playground for dolphins and seals, and often even orcas. Going on a paid cruise gives you the best chance to see these magnificent creatures, but they’re often spotted from the shore too. Definitely something to include in your New Zealand North Island road trip!
A bit further north there is something most locals don’t even know about. Near Ninety Mile Beach, herds of wild horses can be seen raoming around. Now I know that a horse doesn’t sound like exotic wildlife, but we can tell you from personal experience that seeing dozens of wild horses run through the forest is a truly spectacular sight.
Tasman Bay & Marlborough Sounds
The Tasman Bay, and especially the Marlborough Sounds, are full of little inlets and islands, making it the perfect area for marine wildlife to thrive. In the Tasman Bay and along the coast of Abel Tasman National Park you can easily spot dolphins, kayak with baby seals and even the usually very rare little blue penguin are a frequent sighting here.
The Marlborough Sounds are also home to many dolphins, a total of five dolphin species can be seen here, as well as orcas. In Elaine Bay, you are almost guaranteed to spot stingrays, and bronze whaler sharks are common visitors here too. If you’re very lucky, you can even spot kiwi birds here. Just don’t confuse them with the weka, because these are pretty common here and look a lot like kiwi birds. Except that wekas are not shy at all and try to eat basically everything. We once caught one trying to eat our camping chairs.
Then there is the nearby Cook Strait which is used by many whale species to migrate from colder to warmer waters, and back again each year. Often they get close enough to the shore to get look at them.
Kaikoura is famous for its whale and dolphin watching. The tours they offer here are highly regarded as some of the best to spot humpback whales and to swim with superpods of dolphins. Just make sure that the company you choose to cruise with is animal friendly. If you have a kayak or a paddleboard we suggest to paddle out a few hundred meters from the shore. Pods of dolphins are very likely to come say hello, and it’s completely free!
Half an hour north of Kaikoura there used to be a track to the Ohua stream and waterfall where a huge seal colony resided, but the massive 2016 earthquake severely damaged this area and the track has since been closed. Now many of these seals have moved to the coast and can be seen from Ohua Point. At times hundreds of seals, and during breeding season dozens of adorable seal pups lie on the rocks or tumble around in the water here.
Fiordland National Park
Fiordland National Park is mainly know for its dramatic scenery so make sure it is part of your New Zealand South Island road trip, but some interesting wildlife species can also be found here. The very rare Fiordland crested penguin is known to breed in Doubtful Sound. This species of penguin is almost tied with the yellow-eyed penguin in terms of rarity, which is a sad thing but makes spotting one all the more exciting. In most of the other sounds and inlets, Milford Sound included, you’re likely to see dolphins and seals too. If you’re lucky, you might even see a kiwi bird here as their population is relatively high in the Fiordlands.
Fiordland National Park is also home to the kea, the only alpine parrot in the world. These birds are very loud and very smart. They’ll try to steal food and anything shiny, and often succeed too. They’re known to peck through canvas backpacks to get to food, and videos of them trying to peck through the roof of cars are all over the internet. Don’t leave your stuff unattended when these mischievous birds fly around because they will most certainly go for it. Keas are also known to terrorize their surroundings in Mount Cook National Park and Arthur’s Pass, but their density is biggest on the Routeburn Track in Fiordland National Park.
The Akaroa Marine Reserve at the entrance of the Akaroa Harbour is becoming more and more popular for day trips, and with reason. There aren’t many places in New Zealand where you can find such a variety of marine life in one place. The best way to see this wildlife here is to get your paddleboard or kayak out. During the summer months you’re almost guaranteed to see seals and dolphins, and Akaroa is home to white-flippered penguins as well as New Zealand’s largest little blue penguin colony. On a good day you might see an Albatross flying around or even spot some small whale species swimming in the harbour. To spot whales, and even Humpback whales, your best bet is during the winter months. We suggest however that you go here in summer as it is not only warmer, but there is a good chance that Hector’s dolphins will swim and play around you, and you might even see an Orca family swim by!
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To make sure that these animals and all other incredible animal species in New Zealand stay existance, it is crucial to keep wildlife ecosystems intact. Always be mindful when you’re out in nature and be respectful of the creatures living in it. And most importantly, when restictions have been put in place, please adhere to them or the animals that you came to see will disappear.
Some of the wildlife species in New Zealand are an almost guaranteed sight when you venture into their habitat, while others, like the kiwi bird and the rare penguin species are very elusive. But we can assure you that you can see all of them in the wild. Without putting all that much effort into it, we’ve seen almost all of these animals in the timespan of just a few months while travelling through New Zealand.
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