I see lots of posts on the internet about spotting penguins in New Zealand, but they all talk about the same (common) locations. They’re okay, but I think a few other good locations are left out. In this post, I will only talk about places I have actually visited and enjoyed. All location photos are my own and a good indication of the “real deal”!
There are three known species of penguins in New Zealand: the Yellow-eyed penguin (hoiho), Little penguin (kororā) and the Fiordland crested penguin (tawaki). All of them are either at risk of or threatened with extinction. It is therefore important to observe guidelines when spotting penguins.
Leave penguins alone, even though you might be tempted to get close to get a better look or picture. You might prevent a penguin from reaching its nest, leaving chicks hungry! Keep a distance of at least 50 meters and keep away from nests too. If a penguin looks rough, it is probably just because it is moulting (i.e. shedding old feathers). For more information, check the Department of Conservation (DoC) website.
When to go
The best time of year to spot penguins is during their breeding season. The moulting season is a decent alternative. Outside these seasons, penguins spend most of their time at sea to forage. Note that these time spans are approximations.
- Yellow-eyed penguin: Breeding season: Aug-Feb; moulting season: Mar-Apr
- Little (blue) penguin: Breeding season: Jul-Dec; moulting season: Dec-Mar
- Fiordland crested penguin: breeding season: Jul-Nov; moulting season: Jan-Mar
The best time of day to spot yellow-eyed and Fiordland crested penguins is any time from 4PM to sunset, when they return from the sea to their nests. Little penguins only come back ashore after dark, making them hard to spot.
Penguin spotting locations
Even though the North Island of New Zealand has some opportunities for spotting penguins, the majority live on and around the shores of the South Island and Stewart Island. Here, you’ll find plenty of spotting locations.
Curio Bay is one of the most interesting places to visit in the Catlins. It boasts a petrified forest and the area is home to all kinds of wildlife.
Penguins come ashore at both far ends of Curio Bay. Therefore, the best location to spot penguins is on the petrified plateau itself. This way, you can get a good view regardless of where penguins appear. There also are several lookout points atop the bay, but these only cover one end and thus are not ideal.
Porpoise Bay is often ignored in favour of Curio Bay, but they’re only separated by a 10-minute walk. Whereas Curio Bay is home to yellow-eyed penguins, Porpoise Bay hosts little (blue) penguins, which only come ashore after dark. Spotting these penguins therefore is quite difficult. However, Hector dolphins live in this bay and their activity can be quite the sight during the daytime.
You might think this quiet bay got its name from the notorious insect, but fear not! Sand often races through the dunes in this windy bay, hence the name. A 3-km return track takes you down to the beach. The west side of the bay is an excellent place to spot yellow-eyed penguins from the late afternoon through sunset.
As you walk along the beach towards the east end, you might be lucky to see seals and sea lions on the rocks and in the sand.
This West Coast beach is one of your best bets at spotting a Fiordland crested penguin. You get to the beach by walking along a 2.5 km long track for about 30 minutes. Passing through dense rain forest, there’ll be plenty to see along the way.
You need to bring a bit of luck and dedication to spot a penguin at this beach — I waited for 30 minutes until one appeared from the sea, but plenty of people eventually leave without seeing one. If you miss out, at least enjoy the wonderful colours of the many little stones that make up this beach.
Do you have any other recommendations? Let us know in the comments below.