Close your eyes for a second and tell us what picture comes into your head when we say ‘New Zealand’, good chance it’s an image of a mountain, green forest, rivers, lakes with birds and wildlife to complete the picture, right? New Zealand’s a nature lover’s paradise, and the great thing about it is that it’s really easy for anyone to get up close and see our amazing wildlife. The coast, the mountains, of course our national parks are all so easy to get to, you don’t have to kit up and go on an overland safari to see our crazy critters, you don’t have to look for a special ‘wildlife tour’ to experience our experience our nature and creatures, it’s all right there for everyone.
What’s different about New Zealand wildlife?
What is it that makes our wildlife different - short answer, most of our wildlife lives here and only here, you can’t see it anywhere else. Think back to what it must have been like for the first Europeans to arrive here in New Zealand, they were setting foot on a landmass that had been isolated for tens of millions of years, it would have been the equivalent of stepping foot on the moon. Here’s what Captain Cook’s botanist, Joseph Banks wrote ‘This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds, their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard’. The Europeans catalogued and took these rare and valuable specimens back to to Europe, in the same way a rock from the moon is coveted nowadays.
Wildlife on the New Zealand Coast
Look at New Zealand on a world map and you’ll see this country is a collection of rocks right on the edge of the Southern Ocean with about 15000 km / 9320 miles of coastline, so it won’t come as any surprise to you that marine life flourishes here too. Dolphins, whales, seals, seabirds, penguins, sharks, all thrive right around our coastline and there are plenty of tours around making it super easy for you to get up close, you don’t have to jump on an Antarctic expedition to see them.
Travelling around New Zealand turns all of us into wildlife junkies, you may have never been that much of a ‘birder’ but when you’re visiting us in New Zealand you’ll be amazed at how much of a bird spotter you’ll become. Was that a bellbird or a tui? Can you tell the difference between a kea and a kaka? Mistaking weka for kiwi has been done, but you won’t make that mistake will you?
So here’s a beginners guide to wildlife and nature for your New Zealand tour, what to see and where to see them:
Wildlife in the New Zealand Forest
New Zealand is like an ark, isolated from all the other major landmasses of the world for 85 million years, and for at least 55 million years the distance between New Zealand and our nearest neighbour, Australia, has been around 2000 kilometres / 1240 miles. This meant was that what was here stayed here, and what was outside stayed outside for 85 million years, so evolution on our islands took a totally different direction from anywhere else in the world. We never had any land mammals at all, just birds, and with no predators at all (none at all, can you imagine!) they changed their habits slowly. Some lost the ability to fly, some chose to nest on the ground, some developed into a huge size. And this was the way it stayed until around 1000 years ago, when the first human beings arrived. Things have changed quite a bit in those 1000 years, but you can still see remnants of our isolated past everywhere you look.
Of course, our national bird! There are five different types of Kiwis (Brown Kiwi, Great Spotted, Little Spotted, Rowi and Tokoeka) found all over the country, but numbers are on the decline. Did you know the Kiwi is related to the Emu and Cassowary? A family called the ratites, the closest relative the Kiwi has is the Elephant Bird from Madagascar. The Kiwi is nocturnal, so pretty hard to see in the wild, but there are a few tours throughout the country where you can see the Kiwi and learn all about the amazing conservation going on to save them. You can see Kiwi are in the Franz Josef Wildlife Centre, Kiwi & Birdlife Park in Queenstown and Auckland Zoo.
Tiritiri Matangi Island
When we have friends visiting us in Auckland, this is one day trip we love taking people on. ‘Tiri’ as the locals call lit, is a predator free wildlife sanctuary just an hour’s ferry ride from downtown Auckland, making it a perfect day out on the water, a short hike and a close up introduction to New Zealand’s amazing wildlife. If you’ve just arrived in New Zealand, it’s a great way to spend your first day here, cruising the Hauraki Gulf and learning all about the most successful community conservation project in New Zealand.
These predator free islands are dotted around the country and are the flagships of all conservation work in New Zealand, without these sanctuaries species like the Saddleback would be gone. Our favourite out at Tiri is the Takahe, this is by far the easiest place in New Zealand to see a Takahe, our second rarest bird with only 260 left and a few of them live on Tiri and will come out and scratch around your feet while you’re sitting down having lunch!
Kiwi Tip for Tiritiri Matangi - Go on the guided tour, it’s only $10 per person and this money goes straight into conservation work on the island and you’ll have the chance to meet and chat with one of these passionate ‘Kiwi’ volunteers.
Zealandia, Te Mara a Tane - Wellington
Another spot you see Kiwi, but it also rates a mention on it’s own as it’s something very different and one of our favourite places to visit in Wellington. Zealand is a fully fenced urban eco sanctuary, providing a haven for 18 species of native wildlife and keeping the nasty predators out, all part of Zealandia’s 500 year vision to restore the ecosystem of this valley to the way it was before people showed up. We love 'Zealandia by Night' tour - it’s the best of the New Zealand bush and wildlife wrapped up in a super easy format.
The locals love what Zealandia is doing to the wildlife in the city, Wellingtonians are seeing wildlife in the city that hasn’t been seen in generations, one of our Wellington mates told us about the amazing feeling of seeing native parrots flying in the CBD, something no-one’s ever seen before and it’s all thanks to Zealandia. There are 32 km / 20 miles of walking tracks through the sanctuary, ranging from wheelchair friendly to more challenging hiking. Just some of our natives you can see: Kaka, Saddleback, Kakariki, Tui, Fantails, Robin, Weka, Takahe, Weta, Kiwi and Tuatara even - this is the most user friendly wildlife experience anywhere in New Zealand.
Whale Watching and Dolphin Swimming in New Zealand
Is whale watching or dolphin swimming on your bucket list? Lucky for you there are a couple of great spots to see whales and dolphins around New Zealand, the first of which might surprise you: Auckland (the Auckland whale watching boat has over a 90% success rate and they leave from right downtown in our biggest city!).
Kaikoura is the Whale Watching capital of New Zealand, home to the Giant Sperm Whale and on the migration path of the Humpback Whale, Blue Whale, Southern Right Whale, Minke Whale and others. All the marine life in Kaikoura is now fully protected, after the creation of New Zealand’s newest marine reserve in 2014.
Best place for Whale Watching in New Zealand - Well that has to go to Kaikoura, the 500m deep trench close to the shore makes it a year round home to Sperm Whale, Whale Watch Kaikoura is a Maori run business with a great story about how the whale watching helped turn the fortunes of the town.
Dolphins are also a common site around New Zealand, and just like many Kiwis on their summer holidays, that one moment that sums up your whole trip and brings a smile to your face for years to come may be something like sitting on the boy of a boat in somewhere like the Bay of Islands, watching the dolphins riding the bow wave in the sparkling sea - save that moment as a screen saver to keep you smiling for years!
Kaikoura is a popular spot for a dolphin swim or wildlife cruise, but our favourite place for swimming with dolphins in New Zealand (or just a dolphin cruise) is in the Bay of Islands from Paihia, the seas are a bit calmer and as it’s in the far north, it’s way warmer than down south!
In New Zealand waters you’ll see Dusky and Bottlenose Dolphins all over the country, you may have seen these back home but we’ve also got an entirely endemic species of dolphins here in New Zealand, called the Hector’s (and Maui) dolphins, the smallest and rarest of dolphins anywhere in the world.
Kiwis on holiday will tell you they’ve seen dolphins from the Cook Strait Ferry, on the water taxi at Abel Tasman National Park, on a cruise in Milford Sound, even from the beach at places like Ship Creek on the West Coast. Ask a local for the best spots.
Best place to Swim with Dolphins - We’ll go for the the Bay of Islands, because it’s so much warmer than anywhere else you can do this. Yes, it matters!
Kiwi Tip - For a heart warming New Zealand story, read The Whale Rider before your trip. The book has been a Kiwi favourite since the 80s and the 2002 movie was loved by people all over the world.
Seals & Sea Lions in New Zealand
With all our rocky coastline packed with sea life, it’s like a buffet for the seals, so there are literally hundreds of spots all around the country where seals are lazing around on the rocks and don’t seem to bothered by us at all. If you’re a real seal lover you can even jump in and swim with them (in Kaikoura), but there are plenty of places you can check out the seals without going too far out of your way. Most common in New Zealand waters are the New Zealand Fur Seal (Kekeno), but you can also see Sea Lions, Elephant and Leopard Seals.
Best places to see seals in New Zealand: Around Kaikoura, namely on the Kaikoura Peninsula walk or at Ohau Point on the road north of town (this is like a seal kindergarten, the mothers leave their babies in the waterfall pool while they go out fishing). Milford Sound, especially if you’re on a small boat cruise they’ll get right up close to some seal colonies on the rocks. Seals are common all along the Abel Tasman National Park Coast and in lots of places along the West Coast of the South Island.
Kiwi Tip for Seal Viewing - How do you know you’re getting close to the seals? You’ll smell them before you see them, if you ate raw fish all day and never brushed your teeth you’d stink too!
Wading Birds at Okarito Lagoon (White Heron & Royal Spoonbill)
If there’s one spot in the entire country that’s a haven for wading birds, and being just a little bit off the beaten track it’s a really fun place to visit and will turn any of us into an award winning wildlife photographer. We have lots of mates who love their wildlife photography, and they all tell us Okarito is top of their travel list. Surrounded by the World Heritage Rainforest and pretty untouched by the 30 humans that live there, Okarito is home to several of our rarest brids of all - most notably the White Heron / Kotoku and Royal Spoonbills. What we always love doing in Okarito is getting out on the lagoon in a kayak or jumping on a wildlife cruise with our mate Slade. This way you’ll also be able to get up into the forest channels to see the tui, wood pigeon, bellbirds and more of the 70 species that make their home around the lagoon. Although we can’t see them, there’s also small population of the rarest of the five kiwi species (the Rowi / Okarito Brown) in the native forest south of Okarito. Get a first hand look at the breeding You can see the programme for the Rowi at the nearby Franz Josef Wildlife Centre.
A few things you didn’t know about New Zealand’s Kotoku / White Heron
-To Maori, the Kotoku is a symbol of rare and beautiful things, to compare someone to a Kotoku is the highest copliment you can pay them.
-By the 1940s, there were only four nests left in the entire population. This has increased but even nowadays there are only around 120 of these birds left in New Zealand.
If you’re coming all the way to New Zealand and want to live out your dreams of being an award winning wildlife photographer (even if it’s just for the day!) then you’ll love Okarito.
The Kea - the Clown of the Mountains
Here’s one native bird that will make you laugh, it’s like they’re on the payroll, the way they flock around and perform for visitors! We call them the Clown of the Mountains, they’re a highly intelligent alpine parrot (the world’s only one) that have learned a few tricks about how to get the fats and oils they need in the alpine environment they live in. They are also known by the slightly darker name ‘the wolf of the mountains’ because they have been known to attack and kill sheep, making them the bane of high country farmers who hunted them in numbers. Nowadays they are fully protected and although you may see quite a few of them around, there are actually only 5000 Kea left, a lot less than the number of Kiwi.
Be warned, they’ll attack anything rubber on your car and don’t leave anything lying around or your car open when they’re nearby, you’ll kiss it goodbye. Don’t be like one visitor who had his passport stolen by a Kea at Arthur’s Pass - apparantly the police officer he made the report to couldn’t keep a straight face. For a chuckle and the see just what these clowns get up to, Google ‘New Zealand Kea destroying police care'
Best places to see Kea - Only in the South Island - all around Arthur’s Pass, the best spots we know are the Otira Lookout or even in Arthur’s Pass Village. Mt Cook Village (walking out to Kea Point or even around the Hermitage Hotel) and the Milford Road (usually in the stretch between Monkey Creek and the Homer Tunnel) are great spots too.
The Moa - The largest bird ever to walk the earth, and our namesake!
As we’re named after the greatest of all New Zealand creatures, we have to include the Moa on our wildlife guide to New Zealand! The Moa was the largest bird ever known to man. These were huge flightless birds, living in the New Zealand forest and lowlands with no natural land predators which grew up to 3.6 metres / 12 feet tall and weighed 230 kg / 530 pounds. Now that’s one big bird! While the Moa didn’t have any natural enemies on the land, they did have to watch out for the giant Haast Eagle, which would attack from above. Unfortunately both these birds are extinct now, but there have been fossils and even complete remains discovered and bones being discovered even today. Ask any Kiwi guide about the Moa and they’ll tell you all about them.
Moa Fact - The last ‘sighting’ of a Moa was in Arthur’s Pass in 1993, and there’s a huge Moa statue to commemorate this outside the Bealey Hotel there. Most people think the Moa has been extinct for at least 400 years, but Paddy Freaney was not most people!
If you’re a wildlife lover, then you’re going to love New Zealand. There’s so much to see and the great thing we always tell our friends coming to visit from overseas is that we don’t have to do anything special or try to find a specialist wildlife tour - the wildlife is right here and it’s super easy for you to include as much as you want into your New Zealand trip.