Numerous species of dolphins can be found in the waters surrounding New Zealand. Up to 13 species have been recorded: These include very rare species that are only found in New Zealand (Hector's dolphins and its subspecies, the Maui dolphin), as well as creatures that many people don't realize are actually dolphins, like orcas and pilot whales. Other dolphin species found here include common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, and dusky dolphins.
It's not uncommon to see dolphins from New Zealand's beaches: Look out to sea and you may well spot a pod. To get a better view of these graceful creatures, dolphin-spotting cruises on small vessels are available around the country. On other tours, you may see them alongside other marine animals and birds, as well as en route to other attractions.
While many travelers prefer to come to New Zealand in the warmer months (October to March), you have the greatest chance of spotting dolphins from late fall through late winter (May to July). At this time, some migratory whales and orcas are present.
Here are some of the best places to see dolphins in New Zealand.
Bay of Islands, Northland
The Bay of Islands region of Northland's eastern coast is one of northern New Zealand's most popular travel destinations—and a dolphin-watching cruise is a great addition to beach time. As Northland is a sub-tropical region, the waters here are sheltered, calm, and quite warm. Both bottlenose and common dolphins call this place home, and does the occasional orca whale. A cruise to the Hole in the Rock, just off Cape Brett, is a great way to spot dolphins and enjoy views of the whole Bay of Islands.
Hauraki Gulf, Auckland
In the Hauraki Gulf off Auckland, you can catch sight of both dolphins (common, bottlenose, and orcas) and whales (sei, minke, and Byrde's). In addition to dedicated dolphin-watching cruises in the gulf, ferries connect several off-shore islands—including Waiheke Island and Rangioto—with central Auckland.
Tauranga, Bay of Plenty
Tauranga, in the Bay of Plenty region of the North Island, is protected by a sheltered harbor that's also a busy port. If you travel out to the open ocean beyond, there's a good chance you'll see common dolphins and orcas, as well as humpback whales (during the migration season), pilot whales, blue penguins, fur seals, and a variety of bird life.
Orcas as well as Bottlenose, common, dusky, and rare Hector's dolphins live in the sounds. While you can certainly see them chasing the Interislander ferry that travels between Wellington and Picton, a dedicated wildlife-spotting cruise is worthwhile. Small-boat cruises from Picton often stop on Motuara Island, a bird sanctuary near the entrance to Queen Charlotte Sound. Alternatively, you can catch sight of the wondrous creatures on the Pelorus Mail Boat, which departs from the smaller town of Havelock and travels through Pelorus Sound.
Kaikoura, North Canterbury
The small town of Kaikoura, in northern Canterbury in the upper South Island, is better known as a whale-watching destination, but you can easily see dolphins here, too. Between the snow-capped Kaikoura Range and the Pacific Ocean, a deep off-shore trench and the meeting of warm and cold ocean currents draw marine life year-round. Most common are the dusky dolphins; bluish-black in color, they are generally smaller than common or bottlenose dolphins.
Banks Peninsula, Canterbury
Banks Peninsula is the bulbous peninsula that extends out of the mainland east of Christchurch. The waters here are one of the few places in the world where Hector's dolphins can be seen. They are the world's smallest and rarest dolphin. Growing to just five feet in length, Hector's dolphins have black and white markings and a rounded dorsal fin. Sea kayaking is a good way to see them, and potentially less intrusive to the small creatures than a tour on a larger boat.
Otago Peninsula, Dunedin
A short drive from Dunedin city in the lower South Island, the Otago Peninsula is a bird and wildlife lover's paradise. As well as penguins, albatross, and seals, dolphins (particularly bottlenose and dusky) can be found in the cold waters off the peninsula. Pods can sometimes be spotted off Dunedin's St Clair beach as well.
New Zealand's "third" main island, Rakiura/Stewart Island is off the bottom of the South Island, and is a good place to see bottlenose dolphins. Relatively few international travelers make it this far south (in fact, not many New Zealand domestic visitors do either), but those who do are drawn by the nature. Around 85 percent of Rakiura is national park land. Dolphins can sometimes be seen on the one-hour ferry crossing between Bluff, on the South Island, and Oban on Rakiura.