Where to See Penguins in New Zealand

Places you can see wild penguins in New Zealand

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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 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

Milford Sound is one of the places to see penguins in New Zealand, along with seals and dolphins.

We personally did not see any penguins when we were there in late March. We did however see a lot of seals and some dolphins.

Types of Penguins in Milford Sound

There are two types of penguins that can be found in Milford Sound, New Zealand: the little blue penguins, which are more likely to be seen, and the Fiordland crested penguins.

How to Get to Milford Sound

Milford Sound can be tricky to get to, as it is a 4 hour drive down a windy road from Queenstown. If you really want to see penguins, the best way would be to drive yourself and stay overnight, so you have more time. That way you can also go kayaking, instead of just riding on a large boat cruise.

We visited Milford Sound on a day trip from Queenstown. That is the easiest and most popular way to visit Milford Sound. After riding the bus in, we took a 2 hour cruise around the fiord.

When to Go

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.

Where to Stay

Most people visiting Milford Sound will stay in Queenstown and take a tour into Milford Sound. We stayed at the Cherry Apartments in Queenstown with a group of 6, and they were fantastic, and easy walking distance to our tour bus stop.

If you want to stay overnight in Milford Sound, you can stay at the Milford Sound Lodge.

Dolphins came up to greet our ship as we sailed around the fiord.

Otago Peninsula

The beach at The OPERA on the Otago Peninsula where the yellow-eyed penguins come back every night.

The Otago Peninsula is near the city of Dunedin, New Zealand. There are several places you can go to see penguins in New Zealand along the Otago Peninsula:

Allans Beach and Sandfly Bay are some of the places you can go on your own to see penguins in New Zealand. However, your chances of seeing penguins are higher if you go on a tour.

One thing to remember when penguin chasing in New Zealand, is that they are wild animals, and you are never guaranteed a good sighting.

We didn’t see any penguins on the beach, but we did find a napping seal.

Types of Penguins on the Otago Peninsula

The Otago Peninsula in New Zealand is home to the little blue penguins (fairy penguins), and the rare yellow-eyed penguins.

You will also see other types of penguins wind up here, as it is on the border of the southern ocean, with currents that flow up from Antarctica. The rehabilitation at The OPERA had several types of penguins recuperating there, before they could be released back out into the wild.

How to Get to the Otago Peninsula

The Otago Peninsula is just outside of Dunedin, New Zealand, one of the largest cities on the southern island.

You can drive a rental car yourself to any of the places on the peninsula to see penguins, or join a tour that will drive you from your hotel in Dunedin.

To get to Dunedin, you can fly into the Dunedin Airport or take a bus from another nearby city.

We joined a scenic train ride that connected us via cab to Queenstown, but they no longer offer that connection. On our way home, we flew from Dunedin to Auckland.

Do you need a tour to see penguins on the Otago Peninsula?

No, you do not have to book a tour to see the wild penguins on the Otago Peninsula. If you have a car, you can drive yourself to one of the places listed above.

Allans Beach and Sandfly Beach are free to visit on your own, although you are less likely to see penguins without a guided tour.

As far as The OPERA and The Royal Albatross Centre, you do need to book a tour, but you can book a tour directly with them (or a tour that includes both!) Or, you can book a tour from Dunedin that can include stops here, like we did. We booked a tour that included our tour of The OPERA (Penguin Place at the time).

The Royal Albatross Centre tour was not actually a part of the tour that we booked, but we were able to stop there on our way back to Dunedin and join their penguin tour (more on that below).

When to Go

The best time to see penguins in New Zealand is right around sunset, when the penguins return to the shore after fishing in the sea all day.

It is possible to see penguins at any time of year on the Otago Peninsula, though it is never guaranteed. We were able to see both the yellow eyed penguins and the little blue penguins on our tour in March.

Where to Stay

Most people visit the Otago Peninsula from Dunedin. We stayed at the Chapel Apartments, right in the city centre. Our tour guide picked us up at our hotel and took us all over the city of Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula.

If you have transportation, you could also stay on the grounds of Larnach Castle on the peninsula!


(Formerly Penguin Place)

The OPERA 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. When we visited, it was called Penguin Place. They are now known as the OPERA, which stands for Otago Peninsula Eco Reservation Alliance.

The OPERA 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 on the tour.

The Tour at The OPERA

Yellow-Eyed penguins are commonly referred to as the world’s rarest penguins, and they are shy of humans. The OPERA 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 penguins out in the wild.

All of the penguins we saw were pretty far away, and you cannot get too close to them, so that we don’t scare or harm the penguins.

  • Tip: If you have binoculars, you’ll want to bring them. Luckily someone on our tour had a pair and shared them with everyone.

  • Good to Know: You will probably not get very close to the penguins on this tour, in order to be respectful of them. You will see other animals up close, and you can see the penguins up close in the rehabilitation centre.

See the real life wild penguin hiding in the grass??

Even though you don’t get close to the penguins, you can see other wildlife up close on this tour.

The Royal Albatross Centre

On our way to Penguin Place we had stopped at the Royal Albatross Centre, 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.

We watched 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!

They are SUPER tiny and SUPER adorable! You have to see these little penguins in the wild.

Other Places to See Penguins in New Zealand

The only places we visited on our trip to New Zealand where we could see penguins were Milford Sound and Dunedin. But there are actually a lot of other places where you might be able to see penguins in New Zealand!

  • Good to Know: Remember that wherever you are, the most likely time to see penguins is in the evening, when they return to shore after hunting.

Other places where you can see penguins in New Zealand:

Any more questions?

If you have any questions about visiting New Zealand, or any more ideas or advice on where to see penguins in New Zealand, feel free to email me or comment below!

Want to see penguins in New Zealand?

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