Best places to see Wildlife in the South Island, New Zealand

Where to see animals in the wild in the South Island (and in sanctuaries)

New Zealand is so lucky to have such beautiful and diverse landscapes, perfect for wildlife.  There is just something so special about getting up close and personal with animals in the wild (at a safe distance of course)

Here are some great options if you are interested in seeing the wonderful wildlife that New Zealand has to offer.  Check out our guide to finding the following wildlife

  • Seals
  • Kiwi
  • Dolphins
  • Whales
  • Glow Worms
  • Penguins
  • Other Birdlife

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Seals 

Anywhere along the coastline

We have seen seals in random places on any stretch of the South Island coastline.  In fact, a couple of times a year we see them on our local beach.  So always keen an eye out.  If you want a more guaranteed viewing, then check out these spots below

 

Ohau Point: Kaikoura Coast – FREE

If you are heading between Picton and Christchurch on the East Coast of the South Island, then a great stop is Ohau Point, where there is a great seal colony with a lookout and easy parking.  Every time we have driven past there are seals basking in the sun on the rocks. Free and a great stop roughly half way down to Christchurch.

 

Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway – FREE

There is also a large seal colony on the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway.  The track runs along the cliffside, up from Point Kean and you can often see them bathing on the rocks below.  There are a few sections of the track where you can walk down to the beach, but remember to keep your distance.

If you are interested in more information about the Kaikoura Pensinsula Walkway click here. (Photo below)

Beautiful sea views on a clear blue day from the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway. Great Kaikoura walks, Canterbury walks

Kiwi 

Stewart Island

One of the best places to see kiwi in the wild is on Stewart Island.  While they are a nocturnal animal (sleeps in the day, awake at night) there have been regular sightings of kiwi in the day on Stewart Island.  If you stay overnight, have a chat to your accommodation providers as they are likely to have an idea about where they are regularly viewed.  If you are looking for them at night, bring a headtorch with a red light.  (they are often one of the headlamp settings)  This won’t hurt the kiwis eyes or scare them away.

You can get discounted ferry tickets to Stewart Island here

Orana Wildlife Park

If you are looking to find a kiwi, then this is a great place.  The wildlife park differs from a traditional zoo in that it is very spreadout and a bit more in their own habitats.  The kiwi house is dark, since kiwi are nocturnal, but the kids eyes will adjust after a few minutes. We’ve always managed to see the kiwi darting around here.  Orana Park has a lot of animal feedings too, so check their website to time your visit. Also don’t miss out on the Gorillas. We often end up eating our lunch right next to them and the kids are captivated.  You can hire strollers here too or even take the little shuttle around as it is spread out and does require a bit of walking.

Kiwi bird walking through the bush in Rotorua

National Kiwi Centre in Hokitika

If you hadn’t guessed by the name, you can see kiwi at the National Kiwi Centre in Hokitika.  While here, you can also see eels, crayfish, tuatara and whitebait.

Dolphins

Dolphins have to be one of my favourite animals and we are so lucky to have them here in New Zealand.  Here are a few places where you are likely to see dolpins

Dolphin swimming in the water

Akaroa Harbour or Dolphin Tour

I don’t know about you but my kids love dolphins.  The Akaroa Harbour is home to the Hectors Dolphin, the smallest in the world.  If you have access to a boat, you can drive out and go dolphin hunting, or I would totally recommend Black Cat Cruises.  Its a great 3 hour tour and we found dolphins in the first 10 minutes. Theres also a swimming with dolphins option too. The operators are very conscious of the dolphins and don’t spend too long in any spot, although these friendly creatures love jumping in the waves of the boat.

Kaikoura

You can take a dolphin watching and swimming tour in Kaikoura.  They have a huge pod of resident dolphins in the hundreds.  You may also see some if you take a Whale Watching Tour in Kaikoura too.  For more information on Kaikoura dolphin encounters, click here

Milford Sound

If you are take a Milford Sound boat cruise (an absolute NZ must do) then you have a high chance of seeing dolphins here.  They love to play on the bows of the boats in the calmer water here.  Read more here:  Milford Sound Cruises

Nathan from Backyard Travel Family puts out his arms in excitement to be on the Go Orange Milford Sound Cruise

Picton

E-Ko Tours run wildlife and dolphin swimming cruises from Picton in the Marlborough Sounds.  This is a great place to cruise if you often get seasick and the sounds waters here are very calm and you aren’t in open sea.

Penguins

There is something so cute about little penguins that makes everyone love them.  But if you haven’t seen penguins in New Zealand yet, then do note that our penguins are a little different than the Emperor penguins from movies such as Happy Feet.  Our penguins, often blue penguins are very small, but still pretty cute.  Here are some great places to see penguins in the wild.

Pohatu Penguins, Akaroa Peninsula, Canterbury

A little known sanctuary over in Banks Peninsula, Pohatu Marine Reserve was set up by the local landowners to help protect the penguins from predators such as stoats, ferrets, cats and dogs.  There is little help and funding from the Department of Conservation, so these tours help to support the efforts to save the penguin.

On these tours you are able to see penguins in their nesting boxes and take a short walk out to the birdhide, and with binoculars and a scope, can see penguins swimming in the water.  If you are lucky, at dusk, you might even be able to see penguins waddle ashore for the night. (But didn’t see any on our visit, but that’s what makes seeing animals in the wild exciting, the chance to see them or not…)

They also run penguin kayaking tours as well.

Oamaru – FREE and $

Hop on out to Shag Point, about 15km south of Moeraki and you are likely to see penguins and seals for free!  Late afternoon is often the best time to see the little animals toddle ashore.

There is also the Blue Penguin Colony in Oamaru which offers day admission for $18 for adults, kids under 5 are free and night viewings from $45.

Roaring Bay, Kaka Point in the Catlins – FREE

If you have seen photos of the Nugget Point lighthouse in the Catlins, then know this is very close to a great penguin colony at Roaring Bay.  Just a few minutes before you reach the lighthouse is a track down to Roaring Bay.  You can explore the beach during the day, but after 3pm, they ask that you only visit the penguin viewing hide so you don’t disturb the penguins coming ashore for the evening.  Again, we missed the penguins this time, but a group saw some 20 minutes before we arrive.  Just the luck of the timing!

International Antarctic Centre – $

If you want to guarantee you will see penguins, then the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch is the place to head to.  They have an amazing penguin enclosure and they only look after penguins who wouldn’t survive in the wild.  We learnt about some that couldnt swim, one who was too scared of the water, one that had lost a fin and one that was blind.  They have a great tank so you can see them swim and there are a couple of feeding sessions a day.  It is definitely a hit with our kids

Curio Bay, the Catlins – FREE

Curio Bay is famous for being the site of an incredible petrified forest, however it also has a penguin viewing area in a closed off grassy section of the Curio Bay walk.  Penguins are often found nesting here and arriving home at dusk, so the area is fenced off to help protect them and keep them safe.  You can view the penguins through the hidey holes.

Whales

The best place to see whales in the South Island is in Kaikoura.  You can take a boat tour or a scenic flight to see the whales and they have a high strike rate of seeing them.  Do note that kids need to be 3 or older to take a boat tour, so you may need to opt for a scenic flight to take the whole family.

Whale Watch Kaikoura (Boat Cruise)

The whole boat tour with Whale Watch Kaikoura takes about 3 hours.  They will transfer you by bus from their booking office to the wharf and you have a couple of hours on the ocean.  It is worth noting that these boats go incredibly fast, so when you are out in the open ocean searching for whales, you must be in your seat.  You are allowed onto the decks like the boat below when the boat has stopped.

For those who get seasick and like getting some fresh air, do note you will be stuck inside at stages.  I highly recommend taking some seasickness medicine or bracelets to help.  I feel queasy on occasions and I did feel ill on this boat. (They said it was a pretty good day on the ocean, but lets just say their sea legs were far better than mine)

If this might be an issue for you, I highly recommend taking a scenic flight. Or if you have kids under 3, then they will need to take a flight too.

You can book tickets for Whale Watch Kaikoura here

A whale flicks his tail up in front of tourists on the Whale Watch Kaikoura boat on a New Zealand winters day

Whale Watching Flights

Whale watching flights usually range from 20-40 minutes depending on your operator.  One of the great things about seeing them from the air, is that you get to see the whole length of the whale.  Their magnitude is much more apparent from above, than bobbing in the ocean.

The flight operators all work together to find the whales and if you are lucky, you might be able to see more than one.  Ashley and Nathan took a whale watching flight with Wings over Whales and were able to see a sperm whale and a humpback whale.  The other great thing about the flights, are the views of the Kaikoura Peninsula which are absolutely beautiful too.

Wings over Whales were awesome and had a great viewing area to watch the planes take off, and toys for the kids, if not everyone is going on a flight.  Under 2s also fly free on your knee

You can save $18 per flight by booking your Wings over Whale flight here

Glow Worms

Glow Worms on the West Coast – FREE

Here are two options for viewing glow worms.  You can take a tour, or you can find your own free walks to view the little glow bugs such as these:

  • Velenski Track, Taku Street, Lake Brunner: a 20 minute walk one way
  • Hokitika Glow Worm Dell – On State Highway 7, north of the town.  Brown sign post,  just a quick 50m walk, so strollers are fine. Can only be seen at night. (In the summer, its often not dark until 10pm so we put the kids to bed, then woke them to take them)
If you are keen to head to the West Coast to find glow worms and explore some more, we have a whole lot of great short walks, waterfalls and activities all sorted for you.  Read more:  West Coast
 

Te Anau Glow Worms Tour

Real Journeys run an awesome glow worms tour in Te Anau.  You have to actually take a boat cruise across the lake to an underground cave to see the glow worms, so its a real adventure.  Infants and babies are not allowed on these tours though (just FYI)  You also cannot take photos here, so you will have to keep this special journey all to yourself.  You can buy discounted tickets to these tours here

Tourists listening to a guide in the boat at the Glow Worms tour at Waitomo Caves

Birdlife

We are so lucky here in New Zealand that birdlife is abundant.  I have to say, that personally, birds aren’t my favourite, however the more I learn and see, the more I am starting to come around.  Below are a few places to see some great birdlife in New Zealand

  • Te Anau Bird Sanctuary:  This is a free (small donation preferred) facility where the Department of Conservation look after many birds who would not survive in the wild. (ie. traumatised birds, or blind/unable to feed themselves etc)  They also help grow the Takahe population which was originally thought to be extinct, until 1948 when they were rediscovered.  The Te Anau Bird Sanctuary has daily free feedings where you can get right in the Takahe enclosure, feed ducks and learn about other birds on site including the Ruru (owl) Kakariki and Kaka.  For more on this and other things to do in Te Anau, click here

Takahe at the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary: One of the best free things to do in Te Anau with kids

  • Kea:  The Kea is the worlds only mountain parrot.  These cheeky birds are found in alpine locations such as Milford Sound, Arthurs Pass and Mt Cook National Park.  A couple of things to note about the Kea: please don’t feed it, or they won’t hunt their own food, and make sure you keep an eye on them.  They will jump on your roof and chew on your shiny things or peck at your car.
Kea sits atop a road cone on the Milford Sound Road: One of the best things to see in Te Anau
 
  • Weka:  Weka are fast little fellows, often found on the West Coast of the South Island.  They love the bush but they are also cheeky things.  They are a bit like magpies who love shiny things and stealing your stuff.
  • Albatross:  Now if you don’t know much about birds, you may just think its a big white bird.  But in fact, the amazing albatross has a wingspan of about 3m.  If you are very lucky, you may see a seagull and an albatross fly together, and then you will really be able to appreciate how big these creatures are.  So if this interests you, you can head to the Taiaora Heads, about 20kms from Dunedin and check out the worlds only Royal Albatross breeding colony.  You can book a discounted Albatross tour here.  Or if you are in the Canterbury region, take a trip to Kaikoura and experience an Albatross encounter boat cruise.  You can find more about this Kaikoura Albatross Encounter here
Jennifer

Jennifer

Founder of Backyard Travel Family

Jen is a super organiser when it comes to travel. Having travelled extensively in Europe and Africa, has lived in London and the USA and holidayed in many parts of Asia, she is not a newbie to the travel space

Jen has three young children, 5 and under and travels around New Zealand with them.

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