What wildlife will I see on my Bay of Islands cruise?

Here's some information on some of the most common wildlife you’re likely to spot when you're out cruising the Bay of Islands.

With its subtropical climate and pristine, sheltered waters, the Bay of Islands is a haven for wildlife. An impressive variety of birds, fish and marine animals live, feed and play on and around its 144 islands, meaning a Bay of Islands cruise is guaranteed to be full of excitement.

In particular, the Bay of Islands is one of the best places in New Zealand to view wild dolphins and migratory whales year-round. The resident dolphin population is estimated to be 500-strong and Fullers GreatSights is proud to be licensed by the Department of Conservation to interact with these playful and fascinating creatures on our cruises.

Our crew are all local experts with a passion for wildlife and can identify many of the local dolphin population by name. Let’s take a look at some of the wildlife you could be snapping pictures of during your cruise!

Bottlenose dolphins

These large, friendly dolphins are frequently spotted throughout the Bay of Islands region with a large resident population. Bottlenose dolphins have a relatively short beak and a hooked, prominent dorsal fin. They have dark or light grey backs, with paler underbellies and live in pods of up to 60.

When feeding close to the shore, bottlenose dolphins feed mainly on bottom-dwelling fish and invertebrates. Their dives rarely last longer than 3-4 minutes inshore, but may be longer offshore.

See them: year-round

Common dolphins

Smaller than bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins can be recognised by their tall dorsal fin and pale side patches. They form large schools, sometimes including up to several thousand individuals.

They sometimes spend time with schools of pilot whales and other dolphin species. Common dolphins are abundant in the Bay of Islands but precise population estimates are largely unknown.

Common dolphins feed everything from surface schooling fish to squid, often hunting together in schools. They can dive to depths of up to 280 metres when hunting.

See them: year-round


Orca, sometimes known as killer whales, are actually the largest members of the dolphin family. They have black backs and white patterns on their stomachs. Males have a large triangular dorsal fin, while females have a shorter curved fin.

Orca live in small family groups or pods of up to 30, although pods tend to be smaller here in New Zealand waters. They hunt together. Adult orca have an extremely diverse diet including all kinds of fish, sharks, rays, squid, birds and turtles. They are the only known cetaceans that regularly prey upon other marine mammals – when they arrive in the Bay the dolphins usually skip town for the day!

See them: year-round but particularly between March and October

Bryde’s whales

Bryde’s (pronounced "broodus") whales have a bluish-gray body with white on the underside. They have short, broad heads with large eyes. Females are slightly larger than males.

The Bryde’s whale has two narrow blowholes that can blow up to 4m high. It has no teeth but has two rows of baleen plates, which are similar to bristles, which it uses to filter and trap small fish like anchovy, herring and mackerel.

They are usually found alone or in pairs, but will sometimes gather in pods of up to 30 at good feeding grounds. They can dive for 5 – 15 minutes at a time and will follow up a dive with a series of blows.

See them: year-round

Humpback whales

Humpback whales are easily identified with their knobbly heads, long flippers with broad flukes, and short humped dorsal fins. Their body and flippers are coloured blue-black to dark grey with partially white undersides. Humpbacks are well known for their spectacular ‘breaching’ activity, leaping out of the water and slapping the water with their fins.

Humpbacks are frequent visitors to our coastal waters on their long migration routes, between their feeding grounds near Antarctica and their breeding area further north. They travel mainly along the east coast during autumn and return along the west coast during spring.

Humpbacks are baleen feeders, eating krill and small fish like mackerel and herring. Some of their interesting feeding techniques include stunning prey with their flippers and blowing “bubble-nets” to trap them.

See them: March-April and August-September


The New Zealand fur seal, or ‘kekeno’ in Māori, is the most common seal in New Zealand waters. Kekeno have pointy noses with pale whiskers, small earflaps and a dark grey-brown coat. Their hind flippers can rotate forward and they are very agile at sea and on rocks.

Kekeno are excellent swimmers. They feed mainly on squid and small mid-water fish, but also take larger species such as eels, barracuda and hoki. They can dive deeper and longer than any other fur seal
Fur seals go back to the same beach to breed every year.

See them: year-round


Keep an eye out during your cruise for the world’s smallest penguin, the little blue penguin or kororā – you’ll often see them bobbing around in the waves. Recognisable by their slate-blue plumage and white bellies, they can move quickly underwater thanks to their paddle-like flippers.

See them: year-round

Other wildlife

Pest-free islands in the Bay such as Motukawanui Island and Moturua Island are home to a number of rare and endangered species, especially birds. The Department of Conservation (DOC) and Project Island Song are working to increase the numbers of native birdlife.

We’re so sure that you’ll see amazing wildlife here in the Bay of Islands, that when you cruise on board our Hole in the Rock Dolphin cruise and Dolphin Eco Experience, we offer a dolphin and whale viewing guarantee. Don’t see dolphins and whales? Grab a voucher to cruise with us again for free!

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