While New Zealand's most famous bird is the long-beaked, flightless, chicken-sized kiwi, bird and wildlife enthusiasts won't be disappointed by all the penguin-spotting possibilities in the country. There are 18 species of penguin globally, and 13 of these have been recorded in New Zealand territory, though only three species breed on the mainland. These are the Yellow-eyed penguin, the Little Blue penguin, and the Fiordland Crested penguin.
Predators, fishing, climate change, and habitat loss have all contributed to dwindling penguin numbers in New Zealand. The yellow-eyed penguins are the most threatened of New Zealand's three species. Nevertheless, there are several places around the country where it's easy to see them, and doing so helps contribute to their conservation.
Here are the best places in New Zealand, which are all in the south of the country (the South Island and Stewart Island/Rakiura).
The Banks Peninsula, Canterbury
The Pohatu Marine Reserve off the Banks Peninsula, near Christchurch, is home to the largest colony of Little Blue penguins in New Zealand. Travelers can go to Flea Bay to see them; tours are recommended because access in regular vehicles can be difficult. Sightings of the wild penguins are almost guaranteed between September and February, but much less likely at other times of year. Penguins aren't the only wildlife you're likely to see here, however. Seals, Hector's dolphins, orcas, and albatross can also be seen.
The bulbous Banks Peninsula extends south-east of Christchurch, and it takes up to 1.5 hours to drive there from the city.
The Catlins, Otago/Southland
The rugged headlands of the Catlins coast, which spans southern Otago and northern Southland, is prime Yellow-eyed penguin breeding ground. They nest in shrubs and in tangles of roots. The birds can be seen at Curio Bay and the Nugget Point Totara Scenic Reserve (Roaring Bay beach in particular). Hides have been set up from where you can watch the penguins; dusk and dawn are the best times. Stay off the beaches when they are around.
The Catlins region is best reached from Dunedin. It's about a 90-minute drive south.
The Otago Peninsula, Dunedin
Bird enthusiasts definitely won't want to skip the Otago Peninsula. Taiaroa Head, at the end of the Otago Peninsula that reaches east of Dunedin, is home to the only mainland colony of breeding albatross in the world, as well as the rare Yellow-eyed penguin. These penguins can only be found on the eastern and southern coasts of the South Island. Tunnels, hides, and tracks have been built so that visitors can watch the birds going about their daily business. The penguins can also be seen (from more of a distance) on wildlife-spotting cruises along the coast.
Taiaroa Head is about a 40-minute drive northeast of Dunedin.
Off the south of the South Island, Stewart Island/Rakiura is New Zealand's third-largest island. About 85 percent of the island is part of the Stewart Island/Rakiura National Park, so native birds and animals enjoy a protected environment, and visitors have a good chance of seeing them. Both Little Blue penguins and Yellow-eyed penguins live on the predator-free island. One way to get a look at them is by hiking the three-day Rakiura Track around the national park.
Stewart Island/Rakiura can be reached by passenger ferry from Bluff, at the southern tip of the South Island, or on a very short flight from Invercargill.
The Fiordland Crested Penguin is very rare, and there are believed to be around 2,500 breeding pairs. A good place to see them is at Munro Beach, near Lake Moeraki, which is about 18 miles north of the town of Haast on the west coast. There's a walkway between the lake and the beach, and you can take guided walks with a naturalist if you wish. The penguins are very shy, so stay away from them or they won't stick around. The best time to see them is July to November, which is breeding season.
The west coast is one of the most remote parts of New Zealand, but it's a popular road trip destination. Travelers can stop at Haast/Lake Moeraki en route between Franz Josef and Wanaka/Queenstown, as Lake Moeraki is right on State Highway 6.
At Oamaru, on the coast of northern Otago, visitors can see Little Blue penguins by day or by night. While in the day you can see them in their nests, the evening is a great time to see them, as the birds return to the beach and their nests after a day of fishing at sea. The best time to see the penguins in Oamaru is between September and February, when you may see up to 200 birds.
Oamaru is a convenient place to stop when driving between Christchurch and Dunedin. It's about 3.5 hours south of Christchurch by car and 1.5 hours north of Dunedin.
Picton, Marlborough Sounds
Picton is best known as the gateway to the South Island by people who take the ferry across the Cook Strait from Wellington. On the beautiful Marlborough Sounds, you'll find a wealth of natural activities to enjoy here, including visiting Little Blue penguin colonies. Visit the Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary, a short boat ride from Picton Wharf, or take a wildlife-spotting cruise into Queen Charlotte Sound. In addition to penguins, you have a good chance of spotting dusky dolphins, too.
Many travelers reach Picton on the ferry from Wellington. Otherwise, it's about two-hour drive east of Nelson, the largest city in the upper South Island, or a half-hour drive north of Blenheim.