Popular wildlife experiences in New Zealand

From swimming with dolphins and whale watching to encounters with kiwi birds and penguins, here's a list of popular wildlife experiences in New Zealand.

Penguins

Penguin Place Tour

Where: Dunedin (airport DUD), South Island, 3 hour drive southeast of Queenstown (airport ZQN)

Visitors have the opportunity to visit a working conservation programme and to experience and photograph undisturbed penguin activity at close range through a unique system of hides and covered tunnels. The reserve is a private conservation effort to save one of the world’s most endangered penguins, the yellow-eyed penguin, from extinction.  The reserve is funded entirely through the profits from the Penguin Place tour operation.

Blue Penguin Colony

Where: Oamaru, South Island, 1 hour north of Dunedin (DUD)

See the world's smallest penguins in their natural environment. Blue penguins are found right around the coast of New Zealand and southern Australia, but none closer to human activity than in Oamaru. The birds nest right around the harbour area and the colony offers a unique opportunity for you to observe them at dusk, arriving home from their day at sea and returning to their nests. During the day, you can see the breeding colony and walk around and learn about the penguin’s life cycle and protection/conservation policies.

Whales, dolphins & seals

Whale Watch Kaikoura

Where: Kaikoura, 1 ½ hours north of Christchurch (airport CHC)

New Zealand's leading whale watching company offers an exciting up-close encounter with the world's largest toothed predator, the Giant Sperm Whale, in their natural environment at all times of the year. On a typical encounter you’ll see New Zealand Fur Seals, pods of Dusky dolphins and the endangered Wandering Albatross. Depending on the season you may also see migrating Humpback Whales, Pilot Whales, Blue Whales and Southern Right Whales.

Seal Swim Kaikoura

Where: Kaikoura, which is a 2.5 hour drive north from Christchurch or 2.5 hours south of Picton.

Swimming with wild New Zealand Fur Seals, in the shallow waters of the Kaikoura Peninsula, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It's one of those simple natural experiences that opens your mind to the sheer magnificence of New Zealand's natural environment and its amazing inhabitants. A unique natural activity, Seal Swim Kaikoura is locally owned and operated and has won the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence two years running. All equipment is provided and no experience is necessary. Generally suitable for those aged 5 years and over, this is a New Zealand experience you do not want to miss. Operates from October through to May. 

Dolphin Eco Experience

Where: Paihia in the Bay of Islands, North Island. Paihia is 30 minutes from the Kerikeri airport or a 3 ½ hour drive north of Auckland.

Swimming with dolphins can be a life changing experience - take this incredible opportunity to swim with dolphins in their natural environment. This intimate half day cruise seeks out the many playful dolphins within the sheltered waters of the Bay. Join the Fullers GreatSights crew on a Dolphin Eco Experience in searching for those tell tale splashes as Tutunui (their wee boat) gets in really close; jump into the warmest waters in New Zealand and snorkel with these majestic and inquisitive creatures – an experience you will never forget!

Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura

Where: Kaikoura, 2 1/2 Hours north of Christchurch (airport CHC)

Kaikoura is undoubtedly the marine capital of New Zealand, with whales, dolphins, seals and seabirds viewed only minutes from shore. Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura provides visitors the opportunity of experiencing one of natures’ most unique experiences, swimming with or just watching the amazingly acrobatic dusky dolphins. Dusky dolphins inhabit the waters around Kaikoura year round and pod sizes vary from 100 – 1000+. Tours depart 3 times daily in summer and twice daily in winter. 

Akaroa Harbour Nature Cruises (Black Cat Cruises)

Where:  Akaroa, South Island, 1 ½ hours north of Christchurch (airport CHC)

Akaroa Harbour is the only place on the entire planet where you can get up close and personal with New Zealand’s playful Hector’s dolphin – the world’s smallest and rarest species. Explore the stunning scenery of this picturesque seaside village with its majestic sheer sea cliffs and rock formations as you cruise around an extinct volcanic crater. Depart the historic French township of Akaroa aboard one of the Black Cat Cruises to swim with dolphins and view penguins and albatross from aboard too.

Auckland's Whale & Dolphin Safari

Where: Auckland (airport AKL)

Encounter dolphins and whales in their natural environment right in the heart of Auckland. Daily departures from the Auckland Viaduct. Auckland's Whale & Dolphin Safari takes you out on the beautiful Hauraki Gulf Marine Park which is considered one the most biologically and geographically diverse marine parks in the world. Over 22 species of dolphins and whales have been seen in the Gulf, and we have encounter marine mammals on well over 90% of our trips, the highest success rate of any marine mammal operation in New Zealand.

Kiwi bird encounters

Rainbow Springs Kiwi Wildlife Park

Where: Rotorua, North Island, 3 hour drive southeast of Auckland (airport ROT)

Rainbow Springs is spread over 22 acres of parkland, and offers a truly unique experience for anyone who wants to get to know New Zealand’s wonderful environment and animals, both during the day and at night. Your ticket is valid for 24 hours so visit the nocturnal animals like the kiwi, a shy nocturnal bird as it frolics on the forest floor. Learn more about kiwi conservation by adding on a Behind the Scenes tour of Kiwi Encounter, which includes a visit to see the Incubation, Hatching and Nursery Rooms where the kiwi chicks are.

Zealandia: The Karori Sanctuary Experience

Where: Wellington, North Island (airport WLG)

A self-contained mainland island; Zealandia a unique eco-sanctuary for New Zealand’s native wildlife. Rare species are living wild within one square mile of regenerating forest surrounded by a ground-breaking pest-proof fence. Choose from 32 kilometres of tracks to spot kākā (the playful forest parrot), tuatara (a reptilian living fossil), saddleback, hihi, falcon, takahē, wētā, tūī, robin and many more. Book a night tour to seek out the iconic little spotted kiwi and other nocturnal creatures.

Kiwi Discovery Walks

Where:  Hawke’s Bay, North Island, 30 minutes from Napier (airport NPE)

Kiwi Discovery Walks are now part of the Cape Kidnappers Guest Activity Programme at this boutique luxury lodge. Lodge guests are able to take part in a very special activity with Kiwi expert Dr. John McLennan and his team. Dr. McLennan and team offer small groups of guests guided tours, using their radio tracking and monitoring devices. Guests get the chance to get up-close to one of New Zealand’s most endangered and rare birds.

Where to next?

Nature & Wildlife →

Dolphins →

Penguins →

Whale Watching →