Best of the South Island: Nature and wild animals

Image: William Patino

Image: Miles Holden

Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony

Image: West Coast Wildlife Centre

Best of the South Island: Nature and wild animals

Te Waipounamu, the South Island, is home to incredible untouched wilderness, nature reserves and some of the rarest wildlife in the world. Connect to the wonders of the natural world we live in by catching a glimpse of these Aotearoa locals in their own environment.


Seeing these magnificent ocean mammals gliding along below the surface, spraying water from their blowholes or showing off their tails is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences you’ll never forget. Kaikōura is one of the best places in the world to go whale watching, with unique currents and geographical features creating the perfect environment to keep the whales close to shore all year round. Hop aboard a tour with Whale Watch Kaikōura and be taken out to the feeding grounds, where your odds of seeing a whale are so good they guarantee it.


These friendly, playful and intelligent creatures are almost universally beloved and are commonly found in the waters of the South Island. Sociable and delightful dusky dolphins make the waters of Kaikōura their playground, and you can get up close to them with Dolphin Encounter Kaikōura, either from the boat or by joining them in the water. Akaroa is Hector’s dolphin HQ, and you can take a tour with Black Cat Cruises to see or swim with these little guys, the smallest and rarest dolphin in the world. Other dolphin hotspots include the Marlborough Sounds, Fiordland, and the Catlins.


Sometimes called the doggos of the sea, there are a few key places to see seals in the South Island, and even kayak among them. Kaikōura is a guaranteed seal-spotting stop, with a large population to be found lounging on the rocks alongside the Peninsula Walkway. This is also your chance to share the water with seals on a kayaking expedition with Seal Kayak Kaikōura. Ōhau Point Lookout just north of Kaikōura is home to a well-known seal colony, complete with viewing platform and parking spaces so you can make the most of the seal entertainment. You’ve got an excellent chance of seeing seals in Milford Sound, Dunedin’s Sandfly Bay, Golden Bay, Nugget Point in the Catlins, Tauranga Bay and Cape Foulwind on the West Coast, Banks Peninsula near Christchurch, and in Abel Tasman National Park.


How cute are penguins? Comical waddlers on land and streamlined torpedos in the water, penguins are popular with people of all ages. The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony and Caroline Bay in Timaru are top spots for seeing the world’s smallest penguin going about its business, and in Akaroa you can take a kayak safari to see the Pohatu Marine Reserve’s resident penguins. You'll have a good shot at spying yellow-eyed penguins in the Catlins – Curio Bay is a popular spot – and in the dunes and on the beaches in Dunedin and on the Otago Peninsula. Take a tour of the working conservation reserve at Dunedin’s Penguin Place, where you’ll learn about how the reserve works to support the survival of yellow-eyed penguins, and all proceeds go back into the conservation programme. You’ll find both blue and yellow-eyed penguins getting their waddle on among the rocks of Stewart Island, and Monro Beach on the West Coast is one of the few places you might get to see a Fiordland crested penguin, the second rarest in the world.

Albatross and gannets

The Otago Peninsula is home to the world’s only mainland colony of northern royal albatross at Tairoa Head, a truly unique opportunity to see these majestic birds up close. Albatross Encounter Kaikōura is another great way to see some of the largest sea birds in the world, this time out at sea. The gannet colony at Farewell Spit is unusual in that it’s almost at sea level, making it ideal for observing the gannet families.


The national icon of New Zealand is not only rare and nocturnal but also notoriously shy, making them very difficult to find in the wild. Possibly the best place to do so is on Rakiura Stewart Island or the neighbouring wildlife sanctuary of Ulva Island. If a ferry trip isn’t in your plans, however, you can still see our feathered friends at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve or Orana Park in Christchurch. West Coast Wildlife Centre is the place to see the rarest of all kiwi, the rowi, and Queenstown’s Kiwi Birdlife Park is a five-acre wildlife sanctuary offering conservation shows, self-guided tours and an educational kiwi encounter.


Destinations, South Island, See & Do

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