8 Unique (and Ethical) Wildlife Encounters to Have in New Zealand

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Just about everyone loves animals. So it's not surprising that wildlife tourism is popular all around the world. Whether it's going on safari in East Africa or to see polar bears in the Arctic, there are some wildlife encounters that are on many peoples' bucket lists.

But I like my wildlife encounters to be exactly that: wild. I'm not a huge fan of zoos and aquariums (though do admit that some institutions do contribute a lot to conservation), and am always careful these days to do my research before participating in any sort of animal encounter.

The good news is that the tourism industry as a whole has shifted towards promoting more responsible and ethical wildlife tourism. And there are certain parts of the world that have always put the wellbeing of animals first.

One of these places is New Zealand.

Kapiti Island
Arriving on Kapiti Island
Dusky dolphins in the Marlborough Sounds
Dusky dolphins in the Marlborough Sounds

New Zealand is one of my favorite countries in the world, and I'd also rank it up there as one of the countries where you can have some of the most unique ethical wildlife encounters.

If you're curious to learn more about how you can spot rare birds, swim with wild dolphins, and even see penguins in New Zealand, then keep reading!

The Best Wildlife Encounters in New Zealand

Outside of my home country, New Zealand is the place I've spent the most amount of time. I've visited the island nation 5 separate times, and studied abroad for a semester in Wellington when I was getting my undergrad degree.

Because leisure time in New Zealand often focuses on the outdoors, it's not surprising then that I've had the chance to have several really unique animal encounters in all corners of the country.

New Zealand's Department of Conservation regulates a lot of activities that involve animals and birds in the country, so I'm only including ones on this list that I would personally recommend and participate in.

New Zealand farm land
New Zealand fur seal
Is this fur seal judging your wildlife tourism choices? Yes, yes he is.

Here are some of the most popular wildlife activities in New Zealand:

1. See kiwi birds

The kiwi is one of New Zealand's native flightless bird species. And while you'll see lots of other cool bird-watching options mentioned later in this list, I think it's safe to say that most people who visit New Zealand would most like to see a kiwi bird.

There are several species of kiwi birds, but all of them are nocturnal, and several of them are still considered vulnerable or near-endangered because of introduced predators – meaning they can be pretty tricky to spot in the wild.

Stuffed kiwi doll at Hobbiton
This particular species of kiwi is sadly not a real one.

If you want to be guaranteed to see a live kiwi bird in New Zealand, your best bet is to visit a conservation or breeding center that either breeds kiwis or raises young birds until they are large enough to safely re-release into the wild. Efforts like these are important since the kiwi chick survival rate in the wild without intervention hovers around 5%.

Some places you can ethically see kiwis in captivity include:

Many of these sites work in tandem with New Zealand's Department of Conservation on efforts to save and repopulate New Zealand's most famous bird. You're likely to view kiwis at these sites inside a “kiwi house,” which is artificially dark to mimic nighttime.

NOT a live kiwi, but one you can touch outside the kiwi house at Te Puia

For seeing kiwis in the wild, your best bet is to take a tour in a designated kiwi sanctuary, which keep kiwis in natural, yet controlled habitats that lack predators. Popular ones include:

  • Zealandia near Wellington, where you can go on a nighttime tour to look for kiwis and other nocturnal NZ wildlife.
  • Kapiti Island off the southwest coast of the North Island, which offers an overnight kiwi spotting tour.
  • Stewart Island, where you can look for the Rakiura Tokoeka (Southern brown kiwi) on a guided nighttime tour.
Takahe bird on Kapiti Island
Kapiti Island is basically a big nature/bird reserve, meaning you can see lots of other birds, too, including the one-thought-to-be-extinct takahe!

Note that none of these experiences are going to allow you to hold or pet a kiwi bird, but sometimes you might be able to watch a feeding!

RELATED: Learning About Conservation on Kapiti Island

2. Swim with wild dolphins

One of the coolest animal encounters I've had in New Zealand has to be swimming with wild dusky dolphins in Kaikoura, a small town on the east coast of NZ's South Island, roughly 2.5 hours north of Christchurch.

Kaikoura is an incredible place to spot and interact with marine mammals (you'll see it crop up a few times on this list!), and also offers one of the most popular dolphin tours in the country.

You can go out with Dolphin Encounter to swim with wild dusky dolphins in the waters near Kaikoura. These small, athletic dolphins are super curious and often travel in large pods, meaning they're a lot of fun to get in the water with.

Swimming with a dusky dolphin
Up close with a dusky dolphin in the water

The dolphin swimming experience is regulated (there's a limit of just 16 swimmers on each boat), and they also offer an option to just go out on the boat and watch the dolphins instead of swimming with them.

(You can book this Kaikoura dolphin swimming tour from Christchurch, too.)

You can also swim with dolphins in the town of Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula. Here, the experience is even more unique, as it's the only place in the world you can see (and swim with) the rare Hector's Dolphin. These dolphins are the smallest in the world (measuring just 4 feet in length), and are also endangered.

Hector's Dolphins in Akaroa
Little Hector's Dolphins in Akaroa

Book a tour in Akaroa with Black Cat Cruises, which donates a portion of all ticket sales back to the conservation of the Hector’s dolphin. As in Kaikoura, you can also book dolphin-watching tours with Black Cat if you don't actually want to get in the water with them. I did a harbor cruise in Akaroa one winter and loved it.

RELATED: Swimming with Wild Dolphins in New Zealand

3. Spot native New Zealand penguins

Even though people often only associate penguins with Antarctica, the little waddling flightless birds are endemic to regions all throughout the Southern Hemisphere – including New Zealand.

Several species of penguins call the South Island of New Zealand home, including the korora or Little Blue Penguin (the smallest penguin in the world), and the rare hoiho or Yellow-Eyed Penguin and Tawaki or Fiordland Crested Penguin.

Little Blue Penguin swimming in Akaroa
A Little Blue Penguin swimming in Akaroa

Since many of these penguins are rare, it's never guaranteed that you'll be able to spot them. But here are places you can look out for them:

  • Little Blue Penguin – The Otago Peninsula (near Dunedin), Marlborough Sounds, Akaroa Harbour, Oamaru, and Stewart Island. I saw some in Akaroa!
  • Yellow-Eyed Penguin – The Otago Peninsula and the Catlins region. I saw one at Katiki Point, halfway between Dunedin and Oamaru.
  • Fiordland Crested Penguin – Fiordland, Haast, Lake Moeraki, and Stewart Island.

To spot penguins in the wild in New Zealand, you'll need to rely on some luck and good conditions – and timing. Penguins are often out at sea hunting during the day, but return to land just before sunset at night. Plant yourself in a spot where penguins make their homes/nests an hour or two before sunset, and you'll have a decent chance of spotting some.

Yellow-eyed penguin at Katiki Point
A yellow-eyed penguin!
Yellow-eyed penguin at Katiki Point
It's true that I may have squealed when we spotted this guy at Katiki Point!

There are also some penguin-focused tours and cruises you can take in places like Akaroa and the Otago Peninsula:

4. Go whale watching

New Zealand has more than 9,300 miles of coastline, and several species of whales pass by each year on their migration routes.

The most popular spot to go whale watching in New Zealand is in Kaikoura, which has already been mentioned in this post for its great dolphin encounters. Kaikoura is well-known in New Zealand for its marine life, and this is because of the Kaikoura Canyon.

The Kaikoura Canyon is a 2-kilometer-deep ocean trench, and connects to the larger Hikurangi Trench. Prevailing winds and strong sea currents draw all sorts of sea life to this part of the ocean, which in turn draws whales in close to shore year-round.

Kaikoura, New Zealand
Kaikoura is an excellent place to go whale watching

Whale Watch Kaikoura offers whale-watching tours in the Kaikoura Marine Management Area with a very high success rate of seeing whales. Sperm whales are the species that can most easily be seen in these waters year-round, but other species that can and have been spotted include blue whales, humpback whales, and orcas. You can also look for fur seals, dusky dolphins, marine birds, and more.

In Kaikoura, there are a few different ways to go whale watching:

  • Whale watching by boat – This is the most popular option, with ongoing commentary and a partial refund if you don't see any whales. Book a tour here.
  • Whale watching by helicopter – Yes, you can go out to look for whales on a 30-minute helicopter tour! Very fun, and a unique way to go whale watching. Book a tour here.
  • Whale watching by sea plane – You can also go searching for whales in a small plane, which can be more affordable than going by helicopter. Book a tour here.

The other best place to go whale watching in New Zealand is in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park not far from Auckland on the North Island. Whale watching tours here look for dolphins, sea birds, and up to 6 different types of whales.

You're more likely to spot whales in Kaikoura, but Auckland is a good option if your itinerary doesn't leave any room for a stop in Kaikoura. (Book an Auckland whale tour here.)

5. Get up close with fur seals

Fur seals in Milford Sound
Sleepy fur seals in Milford Sound

No matter where you are in New Zealand, you're never more than about 2 hours from the coast. And that means you're never much further from New Zealand fur seals.

Once hunted nearly to extinction, today the New Zealand fur seal – or kekeno – is found all throughout New Zealand on rocky shores and outcroppings.

Fur seal on rocks in Kaikoura
A fur seal on the rocks in Kaikoura

The seals hunt mostly at night, and can be found lolling about on shore throughout the day. They often congregate in established “haul out” areas or colonies and have specific breeding grounds they return to every year, but you really can spot them at any time along the coast.

I normally wouldn't advise you to get “up close” to wild fur seals on your own, but there's one unique activity that lets you do it safely in their territory. In Kaikoura (see, I told you it would crop up a lot!), you can take tours to kayak or even swim with New Zealand fur seals.

I did a fur seal tour with Seal Swim Kaikoura several years ago (read all about it here), and loved the experience. It's much more laid back than a dolphin swim, and basically just required us to float quietly in the water near some seals and let them decide whether or not they wanted to interact with us.

Swimming with fur seals in Kaikoura
Swimming with fur seals in Kaikoura

Book a fur seal swim here, or a seal kayak here.

RELATED: Swimming With New Zealand Fur Seals

There are also established fur seal colonies in Kaikoura and just outside of Wellington that you can walk to if you just want to see the seals on land. When I lived in Wellington, a friend and I hiked to the Sinclair Head Seal Colony inside the Red Rocks Reserve to see seals. It's a nice hike near Wellington, and there were tons of seals!

New Zealand fur seal at Sinclair Head
Fur seal snoozing at Sinclair Head

New Zealand fur seals can be spotted year-round. October-May is generally the season you'll find them more active in the water, while November-January is pupping/mating season.

One word of caution: If you're hiking to see seals on land, be careful not to get too close, or to come between a seal and its path to the water. While they don't move very gracefully on land, they can still definitely bite you, and you getting between them and the water just plain stresses them out.

6. See albatross

From marine mammals, let's talk about marine birds next! New Zealand is home to some truly unique and incredible birds, including 13 different varieties of albatross.

Some types of albatross in New Zealand are very rare and only breed/can be seen in the remote sub Antarctic Islands. But others can be spotted along the coast in the South Island.

In New Zealand, the best place to spot these huge birds is at the Taiaroa Head Nature Preserve (Pukekura) on the Otago Pensinsula, which is the only mainland colony of albatross in the Southern Hemisphere.

Taiaroa Head
Taiaroa Head

Here, several types of albatross can be spotted, including the huge Northern royal albatross, or toroa. These birds are one of the largest seabirds in the world, and only come on land to nest and raise their young – which only happens once every 2 years.

There's a visitor center at Taiaroa Head, and The Otago Peninsula Trust operates guided tours to the albatross observatory via the Royal Albratross Centre.

In other parts of New Zealand, you can also see albatross if you're lucky. They are frequently spotted while cruising Doubtful Sound in Fiordland, and Albatross Encounter offers sea-based tours to look for albatross and other marine birds in Kaikoura.

Albatross at Doubtful Sound
An albatross spotted at Doubtful Sound

7. Take a tour to a gannet colony

Another sea bird that uniquely breeds in New Zealand is the gannet, a large yellow-headed white bird that is quite striking to see. The gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers (Te Kauwae-a-Māui Gannet Reserve) in Hawke's Bay on New Zealand's North Island is the largest accessible mainland gannet nesting colony in the world.

During breeding/nesting season (September-April), upwards of 20,000 of these large birds can be found in this gannet colony.

Visiting the Cape Kidnappers gannet colony is of course a must-do for any bird-lover. And while you can technically visit the colony on your own, the Department of Conservation does not recommend it since the multi-hour walk can only be attempted at low tide, and there's a landslide risk. (Read more about the risks here.)

The best way to visit the gannet colony is to book a tour with a company that can get you access to good viewing spots safely. Companies to consider include Gannet Safaris and Gannet Beach Adventures. The best time of year to go to see the gannets is between early November and late February.

And while Cape Kidnappers is the largest and most famous gannet colony in New Zealand, it's not the only one. You can also spot gannets at Muriwai Regional Park (less than an hour from Auckland) and see nesting gannets from two separate viewing platforms.

Pancake rocks in Punakaiki
(I don't have any photos of a gannet colony, so here's a pretty coastal view instead!)

8. Learn about glowworms

Okay, so it might be a stretch to call these little glowing creatures “animals,” but they still are a unique form of wildlife you can find in New Zealand.

Glowworms are actually insect larvae that glow in the dark through bioluminescence. In New Zealand, the glowworms (titiwai) you can find in caves and other dark and humid places are a type of fungus gnat larvae that's endemic to New Zealand.

The most famous place to see these glowworms in New Zealand is inside the Waitomo Caves on the North Island. These caves are easily accessible, and there are lots of ways to explore, whether you're interested in caving, climbing, or boating. The most adventurous thing you can do in the Waitomo Caves is go black water rafting, which is essentially underground tubing in the dark!

(You can pair up a trip to the Waitomo Caves with a visit to Hobbiton from Auckland, too!)

Glowworms can be found all across New Zealand, though. Other places you can see them on tours include at the Te Anau Glowworm Caves on the South Island, the Kawiti Caves in the Bay of Islands, the Waipu Caves in Northland, and the Nile River Cave System in Paparoa National Park. You can also often just spot them in the wild out in the native bush after dark, especially along the wet West Coast.

A note to keep in mind: It is very difficult to capture these glowing creatures on camera or video unless you have some pretty serious photo gear. So don't go in expected to get perfect photos, and instead just sit back and enjoy the light show. Watch a great video of glowworms here.

Book a wildlife tour in New Zealand:

So there you have it! Eight awesome and unique wildlife encounters that you can responsibly have in New Zealand.

This isn't an all-encompassing list (there are lots of other animals to see in New Zealand, including tons of sheep and so many native birds!), but these are the wildlife activities I would personally seek out and recommend.

And the good news about wildlife tourism is that no two tours or experiences are ever going to be the same due to the nature of animals being delightfully unpredictable.

Which wildlife encounter would YOU most like to have in New Zealand?

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"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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7 Comments on “8 Unique (and Ethical) Wildlife Encounters to Have in New Zealand

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  1. great post! I am from Whakatane (pron. fah-kah-tah-neh) in the Bay of Plenty, and we like to consider ourselves the Kiwi capital of NZ. We have wild kiwi on the edges of town and while it is unlikely that you will see a kiwi (due to them being nocturnal), at certain times of the year you can do evening “kiwi tours” and hear them calling out to their mates (or prospective mates 🙂 ). Also a few times each year there are releases of kiwi adolescents into the bush behind one of our schools, and this is a genuine opportunity to see a live kiwi, in the daytime, just a few feet away from you. These kiwi releases are for kiwi that have been removed from the bush as an egg and then raised until they reach 1kg (2.2 pound) in weight, at which stage they are big enough to successfully fight off a stoat (due to stoat, dog, and other introduced predators many kiwi chicks in the wild do not survive).

    We also have a seal colony and lots of other native wildlife on nearby Moutuhora island (Whale island) which you can kayak around. That’s a great trip which i have done myself. One seal suddenly popped up out of the water about a meter off a young lad’s kayak bow, the expression on the boy’s face was comical.

      New Zealand just has such an abundance of unique wildlife! I would love to see a kiwi release one day; that must be pretty cool to watch!

    I absolutely love that you have identified ethical wildlife adventures! I love animals and eco travel, but I find the businesses that I have engaged with in the past for nature tourism to be cringe-worthy. For example, in thailand we went to see the elephants and I left crying. I felt so bad for those huge gentle creatures. And I know the company likely didn’t appreciate that I didn’t want to ride the elephants like everyone else did. Needless to say, I now avoid wildlife adventures when travelling abroad. I wasn’t aware of the possibility of ethical adventures so thanks for opening my eyes. I look forward to travelling to New Zealand in the next couple of years. I’ve never been. And I’ll definitely be swiming with some wild dolphins and taking in some glow worms. 🙂

      You definitely need to do some homework before you sign up for any wildlife encounter. Any place in Asia that promotes riding elephants or petting tigers is an immediate no-no for me! But thankfully there are plenty of businesses out there that do actually care about protecting the animals.

        next generation can never see that if we do not take care about right now

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