Top 10 wildlife experiences in New Zealand

From swimming with dolphins and whale watching to encounters with kiwi birds and penguins, here are the best ways to see New Zealand wildlife up close.

1. Swim with dolphins

Kaikōura is undoubtedly the marine capital of New Zealand, with whales, dolphins, seals and seabirds viewed only minutes from shore. Dolphin Encounter Kaikōura(opens in new window) provides visitors with the opportunity to experience one of natures’ most unique experiences, swimming with or just watching the amazingly acrobatic dusky dolphins. These small black dolphins with a white belly inhabit the waters around Kaikōura year-round and pod sizes vary from 100 – 1000 plus.

2. Visit a blue penguin colony

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 around the harbour area which 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(opens in new window) and learn about the penguin’s life cycle and protection/conservation policies.

3. Go whale watching

New Zealand's leading whale watching company, Whale Watch Kaikōura(opens in new window) offers an exciting up-close encounter with the world's largest toothed predator. You can see the Giant Sperm Whale in their natural environment at all times of the year. On a typical encounter, you’ll also 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.

4. Visit one of the best eco-sanctuaries in New Zealand

Zealandia(opens in new window) is 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.

5. Marvel at glimmering glowworms

Amidst New Zealand's caves, grottos and native forests, live magical insects that glow in the dark - glowworms. Waitomo Caves(opens in new window), three hours' drive from Auckland, offer one of the best glowworm experiences as you take a boat ride on an underground river and see the magic of thousands of these tiny creatures lighting up the cave roof above you. Glowworms can also be found in other places throughout the country and you may be able to spot them in the banks of lakes and in damp overgrown places and caves.

6. See newly hatched kiwi chicks

Book a tour at the National Kiwi Hatchery(opens in new window), the world's leading kiwi hatchery, and learn all about their kiwi conservation efforts and discover what it takes to hatch a chick. The hatchery has successfully hatched over 2,000 kiwi chicks to date! The tour will give you a glimpse into behind the scenes where you can witness kiwi chicks getting a health check and if you're lucky, see baby chicks in person.

7. Witness the royal albatross in their natural habitat

See these large magnificent birds in all their glory at the Royal Albatross Centre(opens in new window) in Dunedin. The albatross colony is located on Taiaroa Head, the world's only mainland breeding colony for the royal albatross. Learn all about these majestic monarchs of the sea, get a chance to see the birds raising their young at an exclusive observatory, and on a windy day, you may even see them spread their wings, showing off their huge three-metre wingspan! Giants of the sea, they are sure to impress!

8. Cruise Akaroa Harbour to see the world's smallest and rarest dolphin

Depart the historic French township of Akaroa aboard one of the Black Cat Cruises(opens in new window) to swim with dolphins and view penguins and albatross from aboard too. 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.

9. See endangered yellow-eyed penguins

Go on a Penguin Place tour(opens in new window) in Dunedin to see a working conservation programme and experience 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 operation, so by visiting you are helping to support important conservation efforts.

10. Get up close to a gannet colony

Between the months of August to March, gannets flock to coastal islands and cliffs off the mainland for their breeding season. The three of the main gannet colonies in New Zealand can be found at Cape Kidnappers, Muriwai and Farewell Spit. Book a tour at Cape Kidnappers and get up close to the country's largest gannetry, with over 25,000 gannets swooping and diving for fish and feeding their young chicks. Only an hour's drive from Auckland, you can view also these quirky birds at Muriwai and witness their unusual nest styles and a fascinating courtship dance.

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