New Zealand Penguins: Where to See These Gorgeous Birds in the Wild

There’s no denying that penguins are incredibly cute with their waddle walk, flippers and white tummies! So it’s no surprise to learn that many people would love to see these creatures in the wild.

Now, when people think of penguins the first place that often springs to mind is Antarctica. However, we’re lucky to have several species call our beautiful country home, and there are plenty of places where you can spot them.

First, let’s take a look at the different types of penguins in New Zealand…

A yellow penguins crossing sign in front road a road, with a large grey shed behind it.
Oamaru is one of many places in New Zealand where you can see penguins in the wild.

The Three Types of New Zealand Penguins

It’s thought that nine species of penguins breed in New Zealand, but these are predominately on the outer Islands. They are also our native birds that we cherish a lot.

When it comes to the mainland, there are three different species that you can expect to see in the wild…

1. The Yellow-eyed Penguin (Hoiho)

The yellow-eyed penguin is mostly found along the Otago Peninsula. It is a species that’s endemic to New Zealand and is easily distinguished by its yellow eyes (if you hadn’t already guessed).

The yellow-eyed penguin is one of the rarest penguin species in the world, so getting to see one is quite the experience.

There are two main populations in New Zealand; the northern population resides in the South Island whilst the southern population is primarily found along the subantarctic Auckland Islands.

A yellow eyed penguin walking on the grass in New Zealand.
A beautiful yellow-eyed penguin in Aotearoa. Photo credit: Bernard Spragg. NZ.

2. Fiordland Crested Penguin (Tawaki)

The Fiordland crested penguin is another species that’s endemic to New Zealand. It’s also one of the rarest penguin species in the country as their numbers have sadly been in decline since the 1950s.

As the name suggests, these penguins can be distinguished by their yellow head crest. If you’re lucky enough to spot the tawaki, don’t approach them as they are extremely timid.

These penguins are highly susceptible to human disturbances, and unfortunately, this is part of the reason why their nests often fail.

Instead, stand back quietly and enjoy these beautiful birds at a distance.

Two Fiordland crested penguins on rocks. Small penguins with black and white feathers on their bodies and yellow feathers on their faces.
Fiordland crested penguins. Photo: Dash Huang.

3. Little Penguin (Kororā)

Found in both New Zealand and Australia, the kororā is the smallest penguin species in the world – hence the name ‘little penguin’.

Weighing around 1kg and with a height of only 25cm, these tiny creatures aren’t easy to spot. They used to be common on the mainland, but you’ll primarily find them on the offshore islands now.

Like the other New Zealand penguins, the number of Little Blue Penguins has been declining in areas that aren’t predator protected.

Fortunately though, there are still a number of places, particularly in the South Island, where these cute little birds can still be found.

Little Blue Penguins with color tags on their left flippers in Caroline Bay.
Gorgeous little blue penguins in New Zealand.

The Best Places to See Penguins in New Zealand

If you’re looking to see penguins in New Zealand then you’ll want to prioritise a visit to the South Island.

Though little blue penguins are found in the North Island, they generally prefer colder waters.

Wherever you head to spot penguins, you’ll want to do so around dusk. When they’re on land, these birds tend to be nocturnal, so they’ll be asleep during the day.

1. Timaru: Caroline Bay

Timaru is one of the best places in New Zealand to spot penguins. The city is situated along Caroline Bay which is home to a permanent population of little blue penguins.

The best time to spot these penguins is from mid-September onwards but we’ll let you in on a little secret… if you visit Timaru between October and January, you might get to see some chicks!

The best time to see this colony tends to be at dusk (as it is with most populations on this list) as this is when they’ll wander up to the rock line making them visible to onlookers.

If you do see them, make sure you keep your distance so as not to disturb them.

It’s also important to watch your speed on the surrounding roads if you’re travelling by car, as they do sometimes wander up from the beach.

Three little blue penguins on the sand in Timaru, New Zealand.
Three little blue penguins on the beach in Timaru. Photo: Timaru Penguins.

2. Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony

Oamaru has the nickname ‘Penguin Town’ and it’s not hard to see why. Home to both the little penguin and the yellow-eyed penguin, this is a great place to spot these incredible creatures.

Sightings of the little penguin tend to be much more frequent as there’s a colony here. In fact, just 5 minutes from the town centre, you’ll come across a grandstand where you can spend time penguin viewing.

As the penguins return home from fishing, you’ll see them from just 5 to 10 meters away. Trust us, it’s an experience you don’t want to miss!

Pro Tip: Keep in mind that viewing times change throughout the year so it’s important to check before your visit. Due to the timing of sunset, times can vary between 5:15 pm and 9:00 pm.

The head of a yellow-eyed pengin, with yellow eyes and yellow, black and white feathers.
Can you see why yellow-eyed penguins got their name?

3. The Otago Peninsula, Dunedin

The Otago Peninsula is one of the best places to spot penguins in New Zealand. This area is home to several conservation areas where you can enjoy seeing the endangered yellow-eyed penguin.

There are a variety of tour options in Dunedin where you’ll increase your chances of spotting these rare penguins.

These include:

  • Blue Penguins Pukekura
  • The Otago Peninsula Eco Restoration Alliance (OPERA) – previously known as Penguin Place
  • Natures Wonders
  • Elm Wildlife Tours
  • Monarch Wildlife Cruises & Tours.

If you’d prefer to spot them solo, you can try your luck on the beaches along the Otago Peninsula. Either way, this isn’t a place you want to miss during your trip to New Zealand.

If you’re a keen birdwatcher then you’ll be happy to know that this area is also home to the only mainland breeding colony of albatross in the world!

In our opinion, it’s one of the best things to do in Dunedin.

A yellow eyed penguin walking up a rocky beach on the Otago Peninsula.
A yellow-eyed penguin, seen on an Elm Wildlife tour on the Otago Peninsula. Photo: Dunedin NZ.

Other Places to See Penguins in New Zealand

Penguins can be found all over Aotearoa – particularly little blue penguins.

From the islands of the Hauraki Gulf (including Mototapu and Great Barrier Island) to the very bottom of New Zealand, if you keep your eyes peeled you might just get lucky.

4. Waiheke Island, Auckland

Though penguins are not as common in the North Island, they can still be found there.

Waiheke Island, in the Hauraki Gulf, is home to a number of nesting populations. There, little blue penguins are sometimes found under and around buildings near the coast. Their night-time chatter is even known to keep locals awake in some areas.

The most famous population of kororā on Waiheke are found by the Kennedy Point marina. They made the news when construction began in an area where these little penguins like to breed.

A little blue penguin, with it's white tummy, sitting under an upturned dinghy.
A little blue penguin resting ashore. Photo: Chris Anderton.

5. The Coromandel

The Coromandel Peninsula is also home to a number of little blue penguin colonies.

They’re found there in burrows on the beach, in crevices on steep cliffs and sometimes under baches (holiday homes). Though these amazing little birds live close to the sea, they are known to lay eggs over 100 metres from the shoreline – even crossing roads to get to their nests!

As with all adult little penguins, they’ll be out before dawn fishing, before arriving back to land just after dusk.

We suggest keeping an eye out around the coast as night falls if you’re hoping to see these penguins in the wild.

A little blue penguin in the Coromandel. Photo: Peter.

6. Picton, The Marlborough Sounds

This is one of the most northern places where you’ll consistently find penguins in New Zealand, even though it’s technically on the South Island.

Ferries run from the capital of Wellington on the North Island to Picton on a daily basis – plus, you’ll get a discount as an NZTT reader/member. From there, you’ve got a couple of options!

First of all, you’ll want to take a cruise into the Marlborough Sounds; specifically the Queen Charlotte Sound.

During this cruise, you’ve got a reasonable chance of spotting little blue penguins. If you’re lucky you might get to see dolphins, seals and whales too!

Whilst in Picton, you’ll also want to visit EcoWorld Aquarium & Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. Sometimes, they rescue and rehabilitate little blue penguins but there’s no guarantee there will be any there during your visit.

A little penguin swimming in the ocean.
A little blue penguin taking a dip. Photo: Phillip Capper.

7. The Pohatu Marine Reserve, the Banks Peninsula

The Pohatu Marine Reserve is situated off the Banks Peninsula which is a 1-1.5 hour drive from Christchurch. This part of New Zealand is home to the largest colony of little blue penguins in the country.

The most popular place to spot them is Flea Bay but it’s not easily accessible, so a 4WD is recommended. For this reason, many people choose to go on [discounted] penguin-watching tours.

A number of little blue penguins sitting on the cliff rocks beside the ocean in Canterbury.
Spot little blue penguins at the Pohatu Marine Reserve. Photo: Andrea S.

The majority of the tours start in Akaroa where you might get even get to spot a penguin relaxing in the harbour before your trip.

If you’re heading to the Pohatu Marine Reserve between September and February, then you’ve got a great chance of spotting these amazing creatures.

Sometimes the yellow-eyed penguin can be spotted in this area too!

A cute yellow-eyed penguin on the grass near a beach in New Zealand.
Yellow-eyed penguins are sometimes found on the Banks Peninsula. Photo: Ben Tubby.

8. Monro Beach, Haast

Next on this list is Monro Beach which is home to the Fiordland crested penguin.

To reach this beautiful beach, you’ll first have to walk for around 30 minutes along a trail.

After you’ve got to the beach, your best option is to simply lay down a blanket and take a seat. If you wait patiently, you might get to spot one of the world’s rarest penguins.

It’s imperative that you keep your distance while observing the Fiordland crested penguin. For this reason, if you want good photographs we recommend investing in a zoom lens – you’ll be able to use it for all your wildlife photography.

The penguins nest on this beach and disturbing them can result in failing nests which is something we definitely don’t want.

A Fiordland crested penguin sitting on top of a large rock at Monro Beach in Haast.
Enjoy spotting Fiordland crested penguins at Monro Beach in Haast. Photo: travelwayoflife.

9. Milford Sound

Milford Sound is one of the most iconic destinations in New Zealand. It’s famous for its impressive waterfalls, dramatic landscapes and epic cruises.

Dubbed the ‘8th wonder of the world’, what could make this place even more magical? You guessed it – penguins!

Milford Sound is actually home to two species of penguin; the little blue (kororā) and the Fiordland crested (tawaki).

The little blue penguin is the more common of the two but they are notoriously hard to spot here. The tawaki is one of the rarest species in the world but they’re doing surprisingly well in Milford Sound.

In fact, the Tawaki Project estimates there to be around 180 breeding pairs of Fiordland crested penguins in Milford Sound making this a key area for their conservation.

Four Fiordland crested penguins sitting on rocks at Milford Sound in Fiordland.
Keep your eyes peeled for penguins in Milford Sound. Photo: Robert Linsdell.

10. Stewart Island/Raikura

Last but certainly not least, is Stewart Island/Raikura.

Stewart Island is the third-largest island in New Zealand after the North & South Islands. It also happens to be a good place to spot penguins.

Two Fiordland crested penguins in the bush.
Fiordland crested penguins are found in a few parts of Aotearoa, including Stewart Island. Photo: Jake Osborne.

Situated off the South Island, Raikura is home to the little blue penguin and yellow-eyed penguins. As Stewart Island is predator-free, it’s no wonder that these birds like to call this place home.

To reach Stewart Island, you’ll need to catch a ferry from Bluff or you can fly from Invercargill. If you decide to walk the three-day Raikura Track (which is one of our Great Walks) then you’ll have plenty of opportunities to spot these beautiful creatures.

Not only can you often see penguins on Raikura, but you’ve also got a great chance of seeing the Aurora Australis!

Three yellow-eyed penguins walking on the beach.
Yellow-eyed penguins walking along the beach. Photo: travelwayoflife.

Thankfully there are plenty of places to spot penguins in New Zealand, just as long as you know where to look – and now, you know exactly where to head!

Have you ever seen a penguin in New Zealand?

If so, where?

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