The best places to see penguins in New Zealand

May 16

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Aotearoa New Zealand’s most famous bird, is obviously the Kiwi, the avifaunal poster child for the nation.

But the place is home to an amazing array of fantastic birds, including 16 species of flightless New Zealand birds, such as parrots, ratites, wrens, adzebills and (yay!) penguins!

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How many New Zealand penguins are there?

According to the Department of Conservation, 13 of the 18 penguin species in the world have been sighted in New Zealand, and nine of them breed here.

There are three species that breed on the New Zealand mainland: the yellow eyed penguin / hoihoi, the Fiordland crested penguin / tawaki and the screamingly-cute little blue penguin / kororā, which are the world’s smallest penguin.

Take care of our penguins

Speaking of DOC, if you’re going penguin watching, please to their advice on board about how to keep Aotearoa’s favourite sea birds safe:

  • Leave penguins alone. Usually scruffy birds are simply moulting.

  • Put your dog on a leash around penguin areas.

  • Keep your dog away from nests, and warn others nearby of the location.

  • Donate your time or money to help penguin protection groups, such as the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and Forest & Bird.

Where can I see penguins in New Zealand?

The best penguin-spotting places in the country are all on New Zealand’s South Island. Some are remote, but some are surprisingly urban.

Here a five great places to see penguins in New Zealand:

Stewart Island/Rakiura: yay for yellow eyed penguins

Stewart Islands/Rakiura, New Zealand”s “third island” after the North Island and South Island, host two penguin species: little blue penguins and yellow eyed penguins.

Head to Ulva Island, a natural sanctuary accessed by a small ferry from the main island, to look for the rare yellow eyed penguin in its natural habitat. It’s pretty special to see one, there are only about 3600 left in the wild.

You can go to Ulva on your own, or join one of the many wildlife tours offered on Stewart Island.

Haast, Westland: where the wild penguins are

The Fiordland crested penguin, or tawaki, is incredibly rare. Only 2500 pairs form each year. One of the best place to see them is Munro Beach, near Lake Moeraki, which is about 30 kilometres north of Haast on the West Coast of the South Island.

The rare Fiordland crested penguins are endemic to Aotearoa New Zealand. They are very distinctive looking, with a broad yellow eyebrow strip which makes them look like time-travelling punk rockers who got lost on the way to London’s Trafalgar Square, cira-1979.

Curio Bay, The Catlins: rock hoppers

Curio Bay, in The Catlins, Southland, is one of those places that, were it in America, would be the site of a neon-encrusted theme park and a casino. But because this is New Zealand, there’s just a DOC sign and a modest information centre.

It’s home to a population of the hoihoi, or yellow-eyed penguins, who waddle to and from the water’s edge each morning and evening to feed.

Not enough awesomeness for you? Just along from the penguins, lying oceanside like it ain’t no thing, is 180-million- year-old Jurassic fossil forest, one of only three of its kind on earth. Visit at low tide to wander through the thickets of fossilised tree stumps and ponder the minuteness of your own existence against the enormity of time while the penguins eye you with pity. For them, the tress are just rocks.

The Otago Peninsula, Dunedin

The Otago Peninsula in Dunedin is home to breeding colonies of both little blues and yellow-eyed penguins. There are a few locals’ spots where you can go see them, but because of the high population of humans in the vicinity, it’s best to keep those on the d-low.

The best way to observe these birds is with a wildlife tour operator – there are a few in Ōtepoti Dunedin.

Ōamaru: penguin town!

Ōamaru has been called both the “world’s hippest travel destination” and “New Zealand’s coolest town”, but it’s most relevant nickname here is “Penguin Town”. This is because the local population of kororā / little blue penguins are right at home in the town of Ōamaru. The wee flappers come in on dusk every evening and literally run through the streets, bound for nests and burrows in and around the buildings in the CBD.


You can also watch them in comfort, and with helpful scientific commentary, at the Ōamaru Blue Penguin Colony, where upward of 200 of kororā / little blue penguins wash up every evening in groups called “rafts”.

They’ve swum 50 kilometres, and as they waddle up the beach at the end of their journey, you can’t help but feel they’ve come just to say “G’day” before they tuck in for the night.

What’s the best place to spot penguins in New Zealand? It has to be Ōamaru.

This article is even better in print.

1964: mountain culture / aotearoa is a reader-supported magazine that explores Aotearoa New Zealand’s remote places and the people who seek them out. Working with more than thirty artists, photographers, writers, woodworkers and welders, we advocate for and support Aotearoa’s creatives.

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