In Search of Seals: Hiking to Sinclair Head in Wellington

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The morning was clear, crisp. A cool breeze whipped through Wellington's downtown streets – light for a city nicknamed “Windy Welly.”

Deciding to take advantage of the sun and clear skies, my friend Andrea and I decided that this would be the day we would take the bus to Island Bay and hike out to the seal colony at Sinclair Head.

From May to October, Sinclair Head is home to male fur seals who were unsuccessful in finding mates in the South Island seal colonies – bachelors, if you will. These single seals can be found lolling about in large numbers just a few kilometers from downtown Wellington. And we wanted to find them.

Starting the journey to Sinclair Head

On weekdays, you can take a bus to Owhiro Bay, which is close to the beginning of the coastal track that will lead you to Sinclair Head. But, since Andrea and I decided to make our trek on a Sunday, the only option was to take the bus to nearby Island Bay, adding an extra 5 or 6 kilometers onto our round-trip hike.

The bus dropped us off right near the beach at Island Bay, where a few families were out playing in the sand (though not the water, since it was frigid), and a few fishermen were trying their luck in the rough surf.

Island Bay in Wellington

We started our easy hike along the coast, making plenty of stops to capture the scene at Island Bay. These rusty-colored rocks continue all along the shore, darkening and eventually giving the “Red Rocks Coastal Walk” its name.

Island Bay

We soon rounded a bend, and found ourselves in Owhiro Bay – where we would have began if the Owhiro Bay bus had been running that day. Owhiro Bay is a quaint little community with a rounded beach and towering hills on either side.

Owhiro Bay in Wellington
Owhiro Bay

Looking out across the Cook Strait on a clear day like this, the snow-covered peaks of the Southern Alps were clearly visible in the distance. I hadn't realized that the South Island was so close.

Looking across the Cook Strait
That's the South Island you can see!

Andrea and I stayed in Owhiro Bay for quite a while, sitting on the craggy rocks and watching the blue-green water roll and crash into the bay.

Eventually, however, it was time to continue on. We made the curving trek around Owhiro Bay, and entered the Te Kopahou Reserve, which is where the Red Rocks track begins.

Finding fur seals in Wellington

The hike along the coast is not a difficult one – it is mostly flat and over sand or rocks. There were very few spots where you had to hop over a stream or climb over anything taller than knee-height. It is not a short hike, however; you want to allow at least half a day for the entire return trip, especially if you move slow like we did, stopping every 100 feet or so to snap another photo.

Eventually we reached a rock formation known as “Devil's Gate” – two tall protruding bits of rock that marks the entrance to Sinclair Head.

Devil's Gate

We could smell the seals before we could see them. And, in fact, quite a few were lolling about before we even passed through Devil's Gate.

New Zealand fur seal at Sinclair Head

Passing through Devil's Gate, we were assaulted. Not by the seals themselves, but by the smell of them. They were everywhere. Nearly every rock had a dark, lazy figure draped over it, soaking up the late afternoon sun.

Some of them were so still and sleepy-looking that Andrea was convinced the first few we saw were dead.

Here at Sinclair Head, the view of the Southern Alps across the Cook Strait was even better. We even spotted the Interislander Ferry (the vessel that carries passengers from Wellington across the strait to Picton a few times each day) making a return to the North Island.

Really, though, Sinclair Head at this time of year is all about the seals. Since these are all bachelors and there are no females or pups to protect, you can easily (and fairly safely) just take a seat on the rocky shore near a seal and not worry too much about it.

The seals will protest if you get too close (as Andrea and I discovered), but they move so slowly and awkwardly over these rocks that we were pretty confident that we would be able to win in a footrace. Just don't get between them and the water so they don't feel too threatened.

New Zealand fur seals at Sinclair Head

Sinclair Head Fur Seal

After we'd had our fill of lazy seals (and once we could no longer stand the stench), Andrea and I headed back the way we'd come. The walk back to Island Bay, in the shadow of the coastal hills and cliffs, was a chilly one. The wind had picked up, and this was still winter time in New Zealand. We made very few stops on the return journey, instead hurrying along to try and beat the sunset.

We returned to Island Bay with daylight to spare, and congratulated ourselves on a successful hike. We had covered roughly 11 kilometers in about 4 hours, with many stops. Not too shabby, we thought. It was definitely a fun, interesting, and beautiful way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

And the best part? All it cost us was our bus fare.


Want to hike out to the Sinclair Head seal colony yourself? Here's what you need to know:

When to go: The bachelor seals haul out here during the winter months in Wellington – usually May-October.

How to get there: Take the bus to Owhiro Bay, where the Red Rocks Track begins at Te Kopahou Reserve. (If the bus isn't running to Owhiro Bay, you can start at Island Bay, too, and just walk a bit further.)

How to find the seals: Once you're on the Red Rocks Track, simply follow it. It will take you straight to the seal colony, and you'll smell the seals before you see them.

How long does it take? We hiked from Island Bay to Sinclair Head and back in a bit over 4 hours.

Is this a hike you'd want to try in Wellington?


"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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13 Comments on “In Search of Seals: Hiking to Sinclair Head in Wellington

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  1. Amanda,

    Just wanted to drop you a note to tell you my girlfriend and I used this blog post exclusively in our Sinclair Head Seal Search expedition last week. We were in Wellington (from Hawaii) for just 5 days total and were determined to do as much as possible. Here’s the thing … NOBODY … NOBODY in Wellington seemed to know about this little gem.

    First off … we, of course didn’t know that Owhiro Bay is pronounced Oh-fear-oh Bay. Even after we finally managed to make ourselves understood, every single individual we asked from hotel staff at the Amora to taxi drivers to the U.S. Ambassador (yeah, we know him) to New Zealand seemed to think we’d gotten some bad gouge.

    So, off we went on a wing and a hope (and truth be told a whole lot of wintery Wellington wind). We cabbed it from the Amora … just $27.00 NZ to Owhiro Bay. The cab driver was VERY reluctant to let us out at the end of the paved road where the four wheel drive path starts. He kept cautioning us to “be careful” and even tried to drive the cab a bit down the dirt path. We INSISTED we were experienced hikers, were warmly dressed and would be fine.

    We figured it would be about 2 miles from this drop point to the Seals and knew that at MAX we’d walk at a 15 minute per mile pace. We didn’t REALLY keep close track and at one point, I mentioned to my gal-pal that I couldn’t remember if the scenery we were seeing matched up with the photos in your blog. Out came the trusty iPhone and we popped it up and still couldn’t quite decide if things looked like we were on track. Then a thought came to me … what if this was the greatest practical joke EVER? Random blogger writes a post directing others to a fairly secluded spot to find seals and even goes to the effort of including semi-legitimate photos of some surrounding landscapes to further lure in unsuspecting victims.

    We are JUST nuts enough to continue on though and after rounding a small peninsula, the Devil’s Gate came into our sights. As promised by your blog, we were then treated to a royal audience of COUNTLESS seals. We were paying so much attention to those on the rocks and shore that we were walking right by them in the grasses on the sides of the road.

    Thanks for the great time … we also did many of the other items on your Wellington recommendations list. I might offer up to you for the next time you are there … a place called Motel Bar. It is a very out of the way (but very near Cuba Street) place to get a custom mixed cocktail. As you might imagine, it isn’t in the “under $10 range” … but a great place with great personality … and well worth a $15 splurge for a pretty (and delicious) drink.

    Enjoy the pics above on my Facebook page. I’ve got better pics from a “real” camera … but these were quickies I posted from the trusty iPhone.

    Thanks again.


      Hi Lisa! I’m so glad to hear that this post was so helpful to you! I can’t believe others in Wellington didn’t know about it, though… I’m almost positive it was through someone else that I found out about it in the first place!

      I’m glad you continued on, even after you started to have doubts. I’d never knowingly lead my readers astray!

    Great photos, Wellington looks like an incredible place. I’m surprised all those seals don’t attract sharks, but maybe they do?

      Wellington really is amazing — especially on nice days like this one! I haven’t heard much about sharks in the area — it may be too far south for the big, mean ones!

    It makes sense that they smell so bad. There are no female seals to impress, so they wallow in their seal man caves and do not clean up 🙂 Great pics. I especially enjoyed the pictures of the mountains over the bay.

      Hahaha, their “seal man caves” – I love it. And thanks! I’m glad you liked the photos. It’s so easy to get great shots in New Zealand, though – everything is so picture-perfect!

    What a wonderful walk. Who would have thought Wellington could be so interesting.

    Love your comment “We could smell the seals before we could see them.”!

      Wellington has so many hidden gems! This is just one of many.

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