5 Tips for Watching Wildlife in the Catlins

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See Sea Lions, Penguins and Dolphins in The Catlins.

The Catlins is a nature-lovers’ paradise. This spectacular stretch of coastline along the southeast of the South Island is home endangered marine mammals and birds. It’s possible to see New Zealand sea lions, which make themselves at home on beaches and even some campgrounds. It’s common to see yellow-eyed penguins too, making their way across the beaches to their nests. Hector’s dolphins, one of the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world, can also be seen swimming off the shores. Some of the best places to spot these types of wildlife in The Catlins include Surat Bay, Waipapa Point, Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay – and we’ll give you more tips like this in our list of tips for watching wildlife in The Catlins! That way, you’re more likely to get the best wildlife experience for both you and the wildlife found in The Catlins.

While you’re here, you might also be interested in 18 Amazing Attractions You Can’t Miss in The Catlins and 10 Must-Dos in The Catlins.

1. Keep at Least 10m (30ft) Away from Wildlife

The general rule for viewing wildlife in The Catlins and New Zealand, in general, is to stay at least 10 metres (30 feet) away from wildlife. That’s about the length of two cars lined up one in front of the other. Sea lions don’t like to be disturbed, so may roar or charge if you get too close. If this happens, just move away quietly. When viewing penguins, make sure that your 10m (30ft) distance is not blocking the path between them and their nests. Providing that you follow these rules, you’ll get an awesome view of penguins and sea lions, often socialising (or fighting) with each other and going about their routines. It can be an amazing experience as long as they are not disturbed.©

2. The Best Time to See Penguins is Early Morning or in the Evening

While it’s possible to see penguins all year round in The Catlins, there are particular seasons and times of day to increase your chances of seeing them. Summer is the best time to watch penguins while there are chicks around. During early morning and in the evening, adult penguins walk across the shores to their nesting burrows to feed their chicks – often met by their chicks waddling across the shore!©

3. Don’t Try to Find Penguins’ Nests

Speaking of chicks, whatever you do, don’t try to look for the penguins’ nests. Yellow-eyed penguins are very timid and like to keep their nests a secret. If their nest is disturbed, there is a risk that penguins will not return here giving them yet less habitat to choose from. To avoid accidentally disturbing nests, do not walk into or go near coastal vegetation around The Catlins. For more tips on watching penguins responsibly, see the 5 Tips for Watching New Zealand Penguins.©

4. Know What to Do if You are Swimming Near Wildlife

Swimming at the beaches and bays of The Catlins can certainly be a refreshing way to cool off in summer, but remember that you are sharing the water with rare wildlife. If you see Hector’s dolphins while swimming in the water, identified by their black rounded dorsal fin, try to stay at least 50m (165ft) away from them. However, if you are lucky enough to be approached by a dolphin just relax and let them interact with you on their own terms. Don’t try to chase them, as they may be discouraged from coming back to the area. Plus, avoid touching them as we carry bacteria on our hands that could harm them.©

5. Know Where You Cannot Go Fishing

Approximately 161km (100 miles) of the Catlins Coast is a marine mammal sanctuary meaning that there is a set-net ban to help protect dolphins. Familiarise yourself with the Ministry of Primary Industries rules regarding fishing which are signposted on popular bays and campgrounds in The Catlins. Plus, learn more in What You Need to Know About Fishing in New Zealand.©


The information in this guide has been compiled from our extensive research, travel and experiences across New Zealand and the South Pacific, accumulated over more than a decade of numerous visits to each destination. Additional sources for this guide include the following:

Our editorial standards: At NZ Pocket Guide, we uphold strict editorial standards to ensure accurate and quality content.

About The Author

Robin C.

This article has been reviewed and approved by Robin, who is the co-founder of NZ Pocket Guide. With more than 15 years of experience in the New Zealand tourism industry, Robin has co-founded three influential tourism businesses and five additional travel guides for South Pacific nations. He is an expert in New Zealand travel and has tested over 600 activities and 300+ accommodations across the country.

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