How to Find Penguins in New Zealand
When we first started planning our trip to New Zealand, I wasn’t thinking about seeing penguins. I knew there were some little blue penguins in Australia, but I always assumed if I wanted to see lots of different penguins in the wild I’d have to travel to Antarctica or South America.
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I downloaded an iPad app from the New Zealand tourist bureau and was thrilled to discover that there were several places to find penguins. That gave me a great starting point to plan our trip.
I’ve loved penguins since I was a kid, and you can still find plenty of penguin things all over our house. It gets really bad around the holidays, when we get out all the Christmas penguins. Mark thought I was the only one who was penguin crazy, so he had a lot to learn.
If you are interested in seeing penguins during your New Zealand trip – keep reading to see our top recommendations.
Doubtful Sound – Fjordland Crested and Yellow-eyed Penguins
We actually saw our first yellow-eyed penguin, or hoiho, just after we arrived in Queenstown when we used our first ATM. The endangered hoiho is on the New Zealand five dollar note. We knew then that this country was serious about penguins.
Thousands of tourists visit New Zealand’s Fjordland every year and the iconic Milford Sound graces many postcards and tourism posters. If you visit, you should definitely take the trip to Milford with everyone else. But if you really want to see some wildlife and experience the beauty and tranquility of the area, we’d suggest the overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound.
We did the Doubtful Sound trip with Real Journeys. It was epic – first a long drive out to a lake, followed by a 45-minute ferry ride, followed by a bus driving deep into the wilderness. Finally, we arrived at an old-fashioned sailing ship, our home for the night.
The trip is like being on a small cruise ship. We had our own cabin and had a delightful dinner on board. Some people went out on the water before dinner, on boats and kayaks to get closer to the wildlife. It was raining, so I took a nap. After dinner, a naturalist gave us an overview of what native New Zealand birds we could expect to see in our cruise the next day.
This was the first time we learned about the natural history of the area, that New Zealand has no native mammals. We found this mind-blowing – no people, dogs, cats, horses, etc – all mammals came later. This explains why there are so many flightless birds, including penguins – with no natural predators, why fly? This didn’t turn out so well for the Moa – big flightless birds that disappeared pretty soon after the first peoples came from Polynesia. The Moa must have been tasty. But there are still three native penguin species in the area.
The next morning, the naturalist on board kept everyone posted on the native plants and birds that could be seen from the ship. We let her know we wanted to see penguins and she gave us plenty of time to spot two different kinds – a yellow-eyed penguin swimming alongside the ship and three rare fjordland crested penguins or tawaki, hanging out on some nearby rocks.
Even without the penguins, the Doubtful Sound trip was an amazing experience. At one point we pulled into a small cove and the boat shut down the engine and we were all silent for a few minutes. We heard just the birds and the quiet lapping of the water. It was easy to close your eyes and imagine how the early explorers felt when they came to New Zealand hundreds of years ago.
Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula – Penguins in town and nearby
Later in our trip we spent a few days in the college town of Dunedin. Dunedin is on the coast and penguins live close by and occasionally come into town if they feel safe. We didn’t see any in the city but there are plenty of penguins as unofficial mascots of the town, painted on the wall, promoting restaurants, and even on the town’s garbage bags.
Not too far from Dunedin on the Otago Peninsula, Howard McGrouther started the first private, tourism-funded conservation project for the severely endangered yellow-eyed penguin or hoiho. We found Penguin Place serendipitously, after I posted a photo of the Hoiho on New Zealand currency on a penguin lovers Facebook group, a guy who works there suggested we check it out.
Penguin Place is about 45 minutes from Dunedin, on a beautiful road that hugs the water along the way. We joined one of the afternoon tours around the expansive property, stopping first at their penguin hospital for our best close up visit to penguins in all of New Zealand. There were a couple of yellow-eyed penguins and a fiordland-crested penguin recovering in the hospital, which takes in sick, starving or wounded penguins from all over the southeast coast of the island.
After the hospital we boarded a bus for a short ride closer to the sea. Penguin Place is working to restore native habitat and control non-native predators so the Yellow-eyed penguins can have a safe place to nest and breed. We saw lush vegetation and some huge New Zealand fur seals along the way.
After our walk, we entered the cleverly dug observation tunnels that the preserve has created so that tourists can see the penguins without scaring them away or tramping on their habitat. It felt a bit like we were in a military bunker as we snaked underground, heading for our viewing area where we would hopefully see a few Hoiho on the beach.
Our guide cautioned us that we were not guaranteed to see penguins, and our little group huddled around the observation window, sharing binoculars and long-range lenses to try to scope out birds. We saw plenty of regular birds while we waited. After quite a long time, finally someone spotted a single Hoiho standing alone on the beach. It was a long way away, but we felt privileged to see it.
Oamaru – Little Blue Penguins
After Dunedin, the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony was next on our penguin itinerary. Oamaru is a small town on the coast, about an hour and a half north of Dunedin. Originally, we planned to do a day trip from Dunedin to see the penguins, but when we realized that we needed to see them come in at night, we decided to just spend the night in town instead. We are really glad we did. Oamaru turned out to be a great, quirky little town with lots to see.
Little Blue Penguins, or kororā in Maori, are the smallest of the penguin species at around a foot tall. They live and breed all around New Zealand and southern Australia. We had our first little blue penguin experience outside of Melbourne at Phillip Island, with thousands of our closest penguin-loving friends from all over the world. After that experience with the masses, we got smart and booked the premium viewing experience at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony.
As part of our package, we got to visit the facility during the day for a quick tour and a peek into some of the ten active nesting boxes at the colony. During the breeding season, between August and February, there are usually penguins looking after their eggs and/or baby chicks. We got to see a couple of penguins and their eggs. It felt a bit strange to intrude into the penguin’s private bedroom but he or she didn’t seem to mind.
Above ground, the Little blue penguins of the colony have a beautiful community of nesting boxes where they come back to rest every night after feeding. The colony protects them from natural predators and the birds do well and lay eggs generally twice each season. There are plenty of other little penguins roaming around Oamaru, we heard at least one who was nesting at the Steampunk HQ, but these penguins at the colony seem to have it made in the “gated community.”
After we peeked at the penguins during the day, we came back at dusk for our premium viewing experience. For most of the year, the penguins go out to sea every day to feed. Usually one bird is home tending the eggs and/or chicks. Then like clockwork, they swim home together every evening and come back onto the shore in rafts (not actual rafts, that is just what a group of arriving penguins is called). They come together on shore for protection and the rafts can be just a few or hundreds of penguins at a time.
We had a great spot just a few yards from where the penguins came on to the beach, and hundreds of little penguins walked by us, squawking like crazy, before heading back home to their nesting boxes. Before they go inside, the penguins spend time cleaning themselves off and hanging out around their boxes, making tons of noise. It felt like we were seeing them all come home from work and socialize at the pub. Just like at Phillip Island, we weren’t allowed to take photos so we wouldn’t blind the penguins with our flash, but the experience was so much more valuable than just a few photos.
Stewart Island – Kiwis plus Little Blue and Yellow-Eyed Penguins
Unfortunately we didn’t make it to Stewart Island during our trip, but if you are planning a trip around penguin (and bird) watching it would definitely be worth visiting. It’s New Zealand’s third largest island, about an hour’s ferry ride from the southern tip of the South Island and is about 85 percent National Park. In addition to about 20,000 kiwis (or Tokoeka), there are plenty of other native birds, including little blue penguins and yellow-eyed penguins.
Whether you are a penguin lover or not, New Zealand is definitely worth a visit. We encourage you to put one of these penguin spots on your itinerary so you can get your chance to see and hear these magical birds in the wild.