Free wildlife watching in New Zealand

If you know where to go, New Zealand allows you to watch seals, sea lions, penguins and even dolphins in their natural environment for free. And best of all. If you are really lucky you even get to swim with dolphins and seals. 

We also list some non-free locations as these might - depending on your travel plans or weather condition - increase your chance of watching animals.

A word of caution and responsibility

As exciting as wildlife is, please always remember: You encounter wild animals and you are an intruder to their natural habitat. Forcing yourself onto them can have serious consequences for you or the animals. So please obey the following simple rules. If in doubt, leave the animals alone and do something else. New Zealand offers plenty of opportunities.

  1. Keep your distance and never try to touch a wild animal
  2. When it comes to close encounters: Do not approach the animals, allow them to be in the driver seat. 
  3. Obey any local warnings, restrictions or laws protecting wild animals.

Disclaimer

This article lists the locations where different species live. It is your responsibility to obey local laws and to ensure your own and the safety of the animals.

To keep the information in this article as accurate as possible, please drop us a note if you think something is missing.

Seals

 Once at the brink of extinction the New Zealand fur seal has recovered and can be found at many places along the east coast. Probably the best spot is the seal colony at the end of the 

Kaikoura peninsula. Depending on the tide you can get there on the sea side or you need to walk up to the peninsula track and back down to the colony. You will find the seals either resting on the shore or on the rocks near by. We did not see any signs preventing you to go swimming so we assume you could take a swim with the seals. Unfortunately the water temperature is below 20°C and you need to float and not make hasty movements to get the seals to approach you. Thus a wetsuite is needed to prevent hypothermia. So it probably is better to pay one of the guided tours. They will ensure your safety in the ocean and provide the necessary gear.

About 35 kilometer north of Kaikoura you have an almost 100% guarantee to spot baby seals at Ohau point. The parking spot literaly is located next to the seals, so you can't miss it. Additionally a 5 minute walk from the car park, you can find a small waterfall. Here, especially during winter, many baby seals can be found playing in the pond and the small stream leading to the ocean. We only saw three of them and still it rwas fascinating how those little bodies jump out of the water when playing hide and seek

When watching seals, always keep a 10 meter distance and do not block their way to the sea.

Sea lions

 The home of the sea lions, the bigger brothers of the seals, is Waipapa point, 30 minutes south from Porpoise Bay. No luck for us this time though, due to bad weather.

As with seals, always keep a 10 meter distance and do not block their way to the sea.

Penguins in general

During the day, penguins feed out at sea and return to there nests in the evening to rest or feed theur chicks. Thus the best time to watch Penguins is the late afternoon to dusk. When penguins come ashore, it is important to no scare them as this might drive them back to the sea. No big deal for the penguin, its not unusual for them to hunt for several days, but its chick will not get any dinner.

The penguins nests are very delicate and either located on private ground or protected by the Deportment of Conservation. The only option to see the nests up close is to pay one of the sanctuaries. 

The Blue Penguins

 Oamaru is famous for its blue penguine colony, the smallest penguine species, weighting only up to 1 kg. The penguine colony itself is only accessible when you buy a ticket. Luckily the penguins do not care about the man made property rights and you have a very good chance to encounter them outside the colony. Buying a premium ticket allows you to walk through the colony after 

the birds arived and watch how they feed their chicks. The donwside: You are not allowed to take any pictures and with 35\$, the tickets are not really cheap as you basically sit there for 2 hours in the cold blowing wind.

You may watch blue penguins getting ashore for free on the Otago Peninsula in Dunedin right next to the albatros colony. No free access to the nests but no restriction concening pictures either.

Yellow eyed Penguin

On the Otago Peninsula in Dunedin large signs advertise the privately owned sanctuary which allows you to get extremely close to the birds. For 50\$ you will get a 1.5h tour.

500 m before Nugget point south of Dunedin you will find Roaring bay. Here a small shelter is set up from which you are able to see the yellow eyed penguins for free. Be sure to have some binoculars with you. The shelter is situated to ensure some privacy for the penguins and walking the beach in the late afternoon is forbidden. Best viewing times during the year are displayed on the sign shown to the right.

Curio Point is located 500 m next to Porpoise Bay (see the dolphins below) and famous for its petrified forest. If you are lucky you can encounter some yellow eyed penguins there as well.

Free swimming with the dolphins

When you are driving down the east coast to watch penguins and sea lions make sure you don't miss the hector dolphines at Porpoise Bay. A small camping place exists right at the bay offering warm showers. So get your camp site, enjoy the beach and take a swim. If in the right moode, the dolphins will decide to play with you.

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