Where to find penguins in New Zealand and how to get there
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Year visited: 2017
Time of year: April
Seeing Penguins in the Wild
I love penguins.
And I want to see them in the wild! Not the zoos and aquariums (although that’s fun too), but real live actual wild penguins right where they naturally live! How awesome is that?
I always wanted to go to New Zealand to see the hobbit holes, so imagine my exuberance when I discovered that my dream vacation destination also had wild penguins!
There are several places where you can see wild penguins in New Zealand, but the time of year, and even the time of day you go to see them will greatly increase your chances.
Map of where to find penguins in New Zealand:
Milford Sound is one of the places where it is possible to see penguins, along with seals and dolphins. It is possible to get to Milford Sound on a day trip from Queenstown.
There are two types of penguins that could be viewed in Milford Sound: the little blue penguins, which are more likely to be seen, and the Fiordland crested penguins.
If you go between January to mid March, the penguins will be molting, and it is possible to see them on the shores. They also come to the shores between July to November, when they are mating and hatching chicks.
Most people visit Milford Sound on a relatively large cruise boat, but your best chance of seeing and getting up close to the penguins is if you are kayaking.
Our tour was a day trip from Queenstown. We rode in on a bus and had tickets for a 2-hour cruise around the sound (which is technically a fiord), and then rode the bus back out.
But there were a lot of other people there on their own and some visitor centers that we never got a chance to see. So if you’re anxious to see penguins here, booking the easy tour from Queenstown may not be the best option.
We did not see any penguins when we were there in late March. We did however see a lot of seals and some dolphins.
Penguin Place & the Royal Albatross Center
This is where we went to see the penguins. There are several places you can go to see penguins along this peninsula.
We saw the little blue fairy penguins at The Royal Albatross Center, and the rare yellow-eyed penguins at Penguin Place.
What is Penguin Place?
Penguin Place was started because the older gentleman who used to own the land realized that the rare yellow-eyed penguins continually returned to this beach after hunting in the sea all day.
It is now a conservation reserve committed to protecting the rare yellow-eyed penguins, as well as helping other hurt/sick penguins in their hospital.
Penguin Place runs tours for people to go out and see the penguins returning to their beach, and they do this in a way that does not disturb the penguins.
They also teach you about the penguins, their penguin hospital, and their conservation efforts.
Hot to Get to Penguin Place from Dunedin
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get to Penguin Place from Dunedin. When I first started planning my trip (and had no idea what I was doing), my entire goal was to visit Penguin Place and see the penguins. They have a very affordable lodge there, so I figured I could just stay there.
But Dunedin is actually a really cool city, and had I been isolated all alone up at Penguin Place, I would have missed out on a lot.
I ended up booking a tour through Viator that included a tour of the city and area around Dunedin as well as a visit to Penguin Place. I am really glad I did this, because our tour guide was able to take us to off the beaten track places and tell us all about the history and culture of the area.
Had I just arrived in Dunedin and taken a green cab or a rental car to Penguin Place, I would have missed all of this fascinating information and super secret photo spots. Plus, then you just don’t have to worry about anything. You just get in the car and let the driver take you wherever.
Our tour group was just 4 of us and our tour guide, so it was a small group and basically just like having a personal driver for the afternoon.
The Best Time of Day for Your Tour
We were originally scheduled to be picked up at 9 am, but our tour guide called and asked if we would rather start the tour at 1 pm, which would bring us to Penguin Place in the early evening (the whole tour is about 7 hours long).
The reason we would want to go in the evening is because that’s when the penguins come back to the beach. I don’t know if you would really be able to see any of the wild ones at all if you were there in the morning or afternoon. So YES, we did want to switch our times!
The Tour at Penguin Place
What You Will Definitely See and What You May Not See
Yellow-Eyed penguins are commonly referred to as the world’s rarest penguins, and they are shy of humans. The Penguin Place staff have built something like trenches covered in tunnels of tarp to hide visitors from the penguins.
There were two small groups out searching for penguins when we went, and the two tour guides would communicate on their walkie talkies to let each other know where the best places to spot the penguins were.
We walked in the tunnels under the tarps to get to the viewing spots and see if we could see penguins. We were able to spot 3 out in the wild.
We saw one penguin couple from a high up vantage point, so I couldn’t zoom in close enough to really see them well in my camera. One of our fellow tourists let everybody use his binoculars to get a good view of the penguins, so if you have any, I would suggest you bring them for this.
Even though you can see the penguins in the wild, it is unlikely that you will get very close to them on this tour.
Then we headed to a different viewing spot to try to see the other penguin we had been told was out there. At one point the tunnel went right behind where he was, so that if we peeked around the edges of the tarp, we could see him just a few feet in front of us (but facing the other direction).
However, that was not actually one of the “viewing” spots, so our tour guide kept us moving along before I could sneak in a photo. It was really cool to see a penguin so close, though.
The approved viewing spot was not quite so close, but I got a decent enough picture of the back of the penguin to say I saw him in the wild.
This is the top picture in the article, but I’ll put it here again so you can spot the penguin.
Other Animals You Will See
Even though we couldn’t get too close to the wild penguins, we also saw several seals hanging out, and they were very close!
Photos from the Penguin Place Hospital
As it was starting to get dark, we went back to the main building at Penguin Place where they have a penguin hospital.
They actually had several types of penguins there that they were taking care of. When they are healthy enough, they will get released back into the wild.
So these are wild penguins, and you will be able to get close and get good pictures, but it still felt a bit like cheating…
The Royal Albatross Center
On our way to Penguin Place we had stopped at the Royal Albatross Center, which is situated on a stunning cliff edge. There is a lot of information about the local wildlife there, and a viewpoint for seeing the albatross fly out over the ocean.
It was extremely foggy when we were there, so we couldn’t see out very far. I had my camera ready to catch the bird if I saw one, but I just couldn’t be fast enough with all that fog. After we’d been there a while and were about ready to give up, suddenly, out of the fog this giant bird appeared! I snapped a picture, but it’s pretty blurry, and doesn’t do the epic moment justice.
Little Blue Fairy Penguin Tour at the Royal Albatross Center
The Royal Albatross Center also led a tour after the sun went down to see the little blue fairy penguins (the world’s smallest penguin) as they returned to their shore after a day of hunting.
We heard about this tour while we were at the Albatross Center, and were super disappointed that we hadn’t planned to do that too! It was not typically included in the tour that we had booked with our tour guide.
But, since it was just getting dark as we were leaving Penguin Place, and we were so close, my friend and I jokingly (but seriously) mentioned that we should stop by and do that tour too! And our tour guide, being awesome, called up the Albatross Center and said, “Hey, I know it’s really foggy, but are you still going out to do your penguin tour?” And they said, “Yes, you can come if you get here in 5 minutes!”
This was the best moment of the entire trip, made even better by the fact that it was spontaneous. And even better by the fact that our tour guide had never done this before either, and was literally jumping up and down because they told him he could come down with us. It was adorable. And also terrifying because we didn’t know he was there until his face suddenly appeared out of the dark as he excitedly pointed things out to us.
If Penguin Place was a bit of a disappointment (not because of anything they did, but because the penguins were so few and far away), this entirely made up for it. About 10 little penguins slowly came up on the shore and cautiously scrambled up it to their homes.
I’d say we probably watched for about half an hour before they all came up. They were SO CUTE. And SO CLOSE. It was absolutely wonderful!
If you want to see penguins in the wild, this is definitely a tour I would 100% recommend.
Other Places in New Zealand to See Penguins
These are the only two places we went on our trip to New Zealand where you can see penguins. But there are actually a lot of other spots where you might be able to see them!
It still holds true wherever you are that the most likely time to see them is in the evening, when they return to shore after hunting.
Here is a list of some other places where penguins can be found in New Zealand:
The Banks Peninsula
The Catlins Coast
Want to plan your own trip to New Zealand to see wild penguins?
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