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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
- Blue Penguins Pukekura
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 penguin-watching tours.
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!
Book: 3-hour guided tour to visit the Pohatu penguins in the wild | 2 or 4-hour ecotour, including a visit to the Pohatu penguins and a sheep farm | Akaroa & Banks Peninsula Wild Penguins Eco-Tour (from Christchurch).
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.
9. Milford Sound
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.
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.
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 [use the promo code NZTTPLAY to save 10%] 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!
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?