Sea Kayaking in New Zealand

There are many places you can sea kayak around New Zealand but 3 of the best and most unique would have to be Marlborough Sounds, Okarito & Milford Sound.

New Zealand has 14,000km of coastline, offering a vast range of coastal scenery and wildlife. The South Island's coast alone has diversity ranging from steep, sheer granite cliffs within Fiordland National Park and the rough wild seas of the West Coast, to the tranquil bays and beaches of the sunny Marlborough Sounds. One of the best ways to explore this environment, getting up close and personal with nature, in a sea kayak out on the water.


Most sea kayaking companies that offer guided or unguided trips will supply you with a sturdy double kayak (single kayaks may also be available but I recommend kayaking in pairs if you have less experience) fitted with rear rudders for steering, plastic paddles, spraydecks and life jackets. What to wear when on the water will depend on where you choose to paddle. In Marlborough Sounds it’s typically warm and dry (maximum air temperatures ranging from 20-26 degrees celsius for the summer and 10-15 degrees for winter and an average of only 76 wet days a year) so shorts, a T-shirt and water-shoes will probably suffice. The West Coast can be a bit wetter so a rain jacket, layers and spare clothing may be necessary. A hat and sunglasses are also good to wear, plus a generous application of sunscreen.

Some companies (such as those in Milford Sound) may provide you with suitable clothing, warm layers and waterproofs so that you’re adequately prepared for your trip. Most companies will also provide you with waterproof bags so you can store extra clothing or a camera safely until needed.


A guided kayak excursion will take you on a tour amongst the many hidden bays and inlets which make up 20% of New Zealand's coastline. The Sounds themselves are flooded river valleys that were formed after the last ice age 10,000 years ago. The native bush all around is made up of silver ferns and beech trees towering above you, where bellbirds chime and giant wood pigeons struggle to perch on branches a little too flimsy for their weight. Along the shores you may see shags (a NZ variety of cormorant) perched on rocky outcrops or bobbing their heads about like little periscopes in the water. In the water you may encounter a curious NZ fur seal or hundreds of clear moon jellyfish (don't worry this variety are unable to sting humans as our skin is too thick) that you can scoop up for a closer inspection if you dare!

It’s hard to believe that the dense native forest that you'll elegantly glide past in your kayaks was once cleared and intensively farmed during early European settlement, thankfully now mostly under the management of the Department of Conservation it has been returned to its natural environment, although pockets of introduced pine trees still exist and when forested are exported as bulk timber.  Many of the current houses now nestled and tucked away amongst the bush are only accessible by boat and sometimes only used as holiday homes. There is a lot to explore within the main Queen Charlotte Sound and Kenepuru Sound, and more than a day is recommended to make the most of them. An alternative to kayaking in the area is a multi-day hike or mountain bike on the nearby Queen Charlotte Track (Ship Cove to Anakiwa), and shorter half day trips along parts of the track are possible with access to smaller bays provided by water taxis.


A lesser known, but equally beautiful paddle spot is at Okarito Lagoon. Tucked away on the West Coast just 25 minutes North West of Franz Joseph, Okarito was once a busy gold-rush town in the 1860’s but now the population is under 40 and the beautiful native birds are the main attraction. A 4 hour paddle will give you plenty of time to explore the open tidal mudflats and then meander up into the smaller river channels in amongst the native forest. The lagoon is most famous for its majestic Kotuku (white heron) that have one of the only nesting sites in NZ nearby and they frequent the lagoon shallows to hunt for fish. Other wading birds to look out for include oystercatchers and the comical looking royal spoonbills. As you head into the peaceful river channels, take time to stop and listen to the forest chorus of bellbirds and tuis.

As mentioned the West Coast can be quite wet and rainy but Okarito being nestled right on the coast can escape some of the bigger down pours in Franz Josef, which is much closer to the mountains. It’s therefore important to dress appropriately and be prepared for four seasons in one day! In fine clear weather after about 20 minutes of paddling upstream into the lagoon it’s possible to see the snow-capped mountains of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman (New Zealand’s highest peaks) which are certainly a treat, especially on a calm day if you're lucky enough to see their view reflecting in the still waters around you.

If you’re staying a bit longer there are a couple of interesting walks you can undertake up to the Okarito Trig Point (for a panoramic view of the lagoon and surrounding mountains) or along to 3 mile lagoon. If you’re staying the night you could also choose to undertake a guided walk in the native bush to try and spot a rare local Kiwi bird.


As Rudyard Kipling's eighth ‘Wonder of the World’ the cloud piercing cliffs and endless waterfalls of Milford Sound rarely disappoint. It was first discovered by a European, John Grono in 1812 who named it after Milford Haven in Wales, although early Maori settlers had frequented the area previously in order to collect pounamu (greenstone).  To fully appreciate its true scale and have the chance to spot some local seals or Fiordland Crested Penguins a gentle kayak on the fiord with a knowledgeable guide is an unmissable opportunity. As you prepare for your kayak trip an additional little creature might also make itself known. Legend says that the goddess of the underworld on witnessing the sheer beauty of Milford Sound believed if man were to linger here for too long that they would destroy it, so she scooped up a handful of sand and blew it into the air, thereby creating the sandfly. It is a rather annoying little black fly that won't cause too much harm except for leaving you with a slightly itchy bite. In order to prevent bites it’s either necessary to make sure your skin is covered or that you apply insect repellent (most kayak companies would prefer you to use natural repellent rather than deet to avoid damaging their equipment – and your skin!)

Prior to getting underway on the water if you have opted for a longer excursion be aware that there are very few opportunities to visit the rest room whilst out kayaking, so be sure to go beforehand and be wary of your fluid intake! Once on the water and in motion you will leave the sandflies behind and can concentrate on taking in the massive rock structures and waterfalls all around you. Mitre Peak looms above you at a height of 1690m and is considered to be one of the highest sea cliffs in the world. It seems impossible but many of the steep sides are covered in native beech forest, although in an effort to hang on and defy gravity the trees need to interlock their roots and help each other out. Unfortunately, this can also be their undoing and you will see a number of scars on the rock faces where heavy water, wind or weight has caused the undergrowth to avalanche off the steep sides. Milford Sound is truly a wonder, whatever the weather, and being in a kayak amongst these giant mountains is an experience to never forget.

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