What Wildlife Encounters Can You Have in New Zealand?
For rare and rewarding wildlife experiences, look no further than New Zealand. By being on the isolated continent of Zealandia, New Zealand’s native wildlife has evolved away from the rest of the world. The result? Wildlife that is unafraid of human interaction. New Zealand originally had no native land mammals to prey on the wildlife, so today we often get to have close encounters with some of the world’s most fascinating bird species. What’s more, the waters off the coast of New Zealand and full of marine wildlife that is on most people’s bucket lists to see, from whales to penguins. In this guide, we’ll go through some of the incredible wildlife activities and tours in New Zealand.
Ethical Wildlife Tours and Rare Animal Encounters
What makes a wildlife encounter in New Zealand so special? With a population of native animal and bird species in New Zealand, there are some wildlife activities that are either rare or like no other in the world. What’s more, you can experience New Zealand’s wildlife in its natural environment.
1. Swim with Dolphins
An exciting animal experience in New Zealand is swimming with wild dolphins. The great thing about dolphin swimming here is that you swim with dolphins in their natural environment; they decide whether they want to swim with you. Spoiler alert, dolphins are often just as curious of us as we are of them! Some of the best places for dolphin encounters include Kaikoura, Tauranga and Picton.
We like Dolphin Encounter in Kaikoura and E-Ko Tours in Picton (more info on Viator and Klook). For a complete list of dolphin swimming experiences, check out the 5 Best Places to Swim with Dolphins in New Zealand.
2. Scout Out Seal Colonies and Even Swim with Seals
Fur seal colonies are mostly found on the South Island coast, with tens of seal colonies within easy reach, from the shores of Westport to Kaikoura. While on land, seals are often grumpy when humans approach them (the Department of Conservation recommends standing about 20-30 m/65-100 ft away), in the water is another story. In their element, seals are curious enough to swim around you and even so some underwater acrobats. Seal swimming with a certified guide is available in winter at the Poor Knights Islands off the coast of Tutukaka.
For more seal spotting, check out 15 Best Places to See Seals in New Zealand.
3. Watch Whales on a Cruise or a Scenic Flight
A whole array of whale species can be seen in New Zealand’s waters. What’s more, whale watching can be done all year round in New Zealand. See whales on dedicated whale-watching tours, especially in Kaikoura and Auckland. Alternatively, get a unique perspective of the whales by taking a whale-watching flight in Kaikoura.
Some of our favourites are Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari (more info on Viator and Klook) and Wings Over Whales (on Viator and Klook). To see the best whale watching locations, as well as tours, check out our list of the 5 Best Places to Spot Whales in New Zealand.
4. Spot New Zealand’s Iconic Kiwi
You can see the New Zealand national bird in the wild on kiwi spotting tours or in sanctuaries, particularly in Whangarei in the Northland region, as well as in Franz Josef on the West Coast. The flightless bird is elusive and nocturnal so seeing one truly is a rewarding experience.
The kiwi hatcheries at the National Kiwi Hatchery (more info on Viator and Klook) and West Coast Wildlife Centre are too cute to pass! Find out more about where to spot kiwi birds both in the wild and in sanctuaries in our guide, Where to See Kiwi Birds in New Zealand.
5. See Penguins Waddling On Shore
New Zealand also has around six different species of penguins including the world’s smallest penguin, the little blue penguin, and one of the world’s rarest, the yellow-eyed penguin. Penguins can be found all over the coast of New Zealand, but the largest colonies are located in Oamaru and Akaroa.
We like the inexpensive evening viewing at Blue Penguins Pukekura in Dunedin and Pohatu Penguins in Akaroa. Check out the 5 Best Places to See Penguins in New Zealand for more penguin-spotting sites, as well as the 5 Tips for Watching New Zealand Penguins to ensure more ethical viewing.
6. Watch a Kea Causing Mischief
Yes, a very popular activity in New Zealand is filming a kea as it destroys your car! Kea are the world’s only alpine parrot, characterised by their intelligence and for being very cheeky. The most common places to find them include Milford Sound and Arthur’s Pass.
Hop on any of the 10 Best Milford Sound Tours from Queenstown & Te Anau and you have a high chance of spotting a kea.
7. Walk Among Gannets
New Zealand has some of the largest gannet colonies in the world. The largest of which is at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay. These majestic seabirds can dive into the ocean at point break speed so are fascinating to watch out on the ocean and at their nesting sites. Alternatively, there’s a very accessible gannet colony to view from Muriwai in the Auckland region.
One of the best tours to see gannets with ease is Gannet Safaris Overland in Hawke’s Bay.
8. Visit a Wildlife Sanctuary
Some islands and forests protected by a predator-proof fence have walking tracks for visitors to get a glimpse of what New Zealand used to be like before human migration and when there were fewer predators to disrupt the ecosystem. See an abundance of native birds on islands like Tiritiri Matangi in Auckland, Kapiti Island in Wellington, Mount Maungatautari in Cambridge, Ulva Island off the coast of Stewart Island (more info on Viator and Klook) and so much more!
See a list of wildlife sanctuaries to visit in the 10 Best Bird Sanctuaries in New Zealand.
9. Marvel at Twinkling Glowworms
Sometimes we are so spellbound by the light displays of New Zealand’s glowworms that we forget that these little guys are actually insects! Although places like Waitomo are famous for their high concentration of glowworms, these shiny maggots can actually be found all over the country.
Some awesome glowworm tours include the Te Anau Glowworm Caves (more info on Viator and Klook) and the Ruakuri Cave. However, you can find a full comparison, as well as free caves, in the 10 Best Places to See Glowworms in New Zealand and 10 Free Glowworm Caves in New Zealand.
10. Ride a Horse Through the New Zealand Landscape
Although not commonly classed as “wildlife”, horse trekking is a popular way to enjoy New Zealand’s landscapes while encountering majestic animals.
Some of our favourite treks include River Valley Stables in Taihape and The Cardrona Hotel near Wanaka and Queenstown. Learn about these tours and more in the 15 Best Horse Treks in New Zealand.
More Wildlife Activities and Tours in New Zealand
That’s it for our list of the best animal and wildlife activities and tours in New Zealand. For more wildlife encounters, take a look at the following guides:
- 10 Things You Did Not Know About New Zealand Wildlife
- 20 Animals and Birds Unique to New Zealand
- How to Have the Best Wildlife Encounters in New Zealand
Finally, complete your bucket list with the 101 Things to Do in New Zealand: The Ultimate List!