One of the best things about visiting New Zealand is the chance to see beautiful wildlife and spot unique species in their natural habitats.
New Zealand is home to an array of fascinating creatures, from the iconic kiwi bird to fish, insects, and frogs. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to see as many of them as possible while you’re here!
One interesting thing about New Zealand’s wildlife is that bats are the only native land mammal! All other mammals in New Zealand were introduced by humans and are often considered pests because they threaten the local birdlife.
The Maori introduced two mammal species to New Zealand: dogs and Polynesian rats. All other mammals were brought over by European settlers. Experts aren’t sure when or why land mammals became extinct, but there were none in the country for millions of years before humans arrived.
There are so many amazing destinations to explore in New Zealand – which is one of the many reasons I moved here. Wildlife varies across the country with animals you’ve probably never seen. That’s why I’ve put together this complete guide to New Zealand’s best wildlife so you know where and how to spot your favorite species.
- 1. Kiwi Bird
- 2. New Zealand Fur Seals
- 3. Takahē
- 4. Humpback Whale
- 5. Long Tailed and Short-Tailed Bat
- 6. Orcas
- 7. Hector’s Dolphins
- 8. Dusky Dolphin
- 9. New Zealand King Shag
- 10. New Zealand Sea Lion
- 11. Kea
- 12. Kaka
- 13. Yellow Eyed Penguins
- 14. Little Blue Penguins
- 15. Blue Duck or Whio
- 16. Otago Skink
- 17. New Zealand Glow Worm (Arachnocampa Luminosa)
- 18. Tui
- 19. Morepork Owl
- 20. Maui Dolphin
- 21. New Zealand Robin
- 22. Fiordland-Crested Penguins
- 23. Giant Wētā
- 24. Tuatara Lizard
- 25. New Zealand Fantail
- 26. Kākāpō
- Thanks for reading!
1. Kiwi Bird
Of course, I had to start this blog about wildlife in NZ with the kiwi! This cute little bird is New Zealand’s national animal and it’s super unique, too. Kiwis have no tails and they have tiny wings, which means they can’t fly. However, they do have super strong legs for running around.
It’s difficult to see kiwis in the wild, but your chances are best on Stewart Island, where roughly 13,000 kiwis live – 32.5 times the local human population! You can get there by taking a ferry from Bluff, a town at the southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. Kiwis are nocturnal, so you’ll have to head out at night to get a glimpse.
Stewart Island is pretty remote, so if you don’t have time to travel there, you can also see Kiwis in sanctuaries and wildlife parks around the country.
This night tour in Wellington takes you to an eco-sanctuary where you’ll go kiwi foraging. Your guide will also point out other interesting species like wētā, glow worms, and tuatara, while teaching you about their significance in Maori culture. Kiwi spotting isn’t guaranteed, but there’s about an 80% chance you’ll see one.
You can also see kiwis at Pūkaha National Wildlife Centre along State Highway 2 in the Tuarua district on the South Island. This self-guided tour costs $22 NZD, and the center’s hours are 9 am-5pm in winter and 9 am-6 pm in summer.
You’ll walk through an unfenced sanctuary, so wear comfy shoes to explore the 942-hectare (2,328-acre) forest. Here, they breed endangered birds to release them into the wild and teach visitors about forest restoration. You’ll see kiwis in the nocturnal house and, during the breeding season, adorable kiwi chicks! One thing I also loved about this place was watching the kākā feeding that happens around 1:30 and 3pm daily.
In Queenstown, you can see kiwis – along with over 20 other native bird species – at the Kiwi Birdlife Park. The kiwis are in a nocturnal enclosure, so you can see them anytime! The park is open every day, 9 am-5 pm, and your NZ $49 ticket includes an audio guide and a wildlife show.
2. New Zealand Fur Seals
New Zealand fur seals are the most common type of seals in the country and let me tell you, they’re absolutely adorable. They live on rocky shores throughout the mainland, although occasionally, they’ve been known to make their way into people’s backyards!
Generally, the South Island is better for spotting fur seals, although they are becoming more common on the North Island, too.
One of the best places to see New Zealand fur seals is in Kaikoura. I really enjoyed this kayaking adventure, where I saw seals playing on rocks and in the water. The hands-free kayaks make it easier to snap photos of these cute creatures, and you’ll also see penguins and albatross along the way. The tour costs $120 NZD and starts along Beach Road in Kaikoura
If you’re visiting Dunedin in the Otago region, this half-day excursion will guide you along the coastline, where you’ll spot fur seals and sea lions sunbathing and playing. The tour costs only $99 NZD and groups are capped at 19 people, so book ahead! Although wildlife sightings aren’t guaranteed, your guide will do their best to help you spot some.
This guided kayaking tour near Nelson takes you to the stunning Tonga Island via water taxi. There, you’ll paddle around the beautiful landscapes and white-sand shores of Abel Tasman National Park, spotting fur seals as you go. This 5 hour tour costs $190 NZD and includes 1.5 hours on the water, a stop on a scenic beach, and a tasty lunch!
The takahē is a rare and endangered swamphen; in fact, they were considered extinct in the late 1890s until a population was rediscovered in the Fiordland Valley in 1948.
They’re the biggest flightless bird in New Zealand, and the only place to see them in the wild is in the Murchison Mountains in Fiordland National Park.
Zealandia is a wildlife forest and eco-sanctuary home to over 40 rare species of native New Zealand wildlife. You can take a day tour of Zealandia, during which an expert guide will lead you through the forest and teach you all about a range of rare birds, including takahēs.
4. Humpback Whale
If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll probably know that I love whale watching and am super passionate about these incredible creatures.
Humpback whales are huge, weighing up to 40 metric tonnes (44 US tons), and they breach frequently, so they’re one of the best types of whales to spot. They’re known for the hump on their back (hence the name!) and each one has a unique pattern of spots and stripes, kind of like a fingerprint.
You can go whale watching in Auckland on this Dolphin and Whale-Watching Eco-Safari Cruise, which takes you on a luxury catamaran along Hauraki Gulf Marine Park. You’ll spot dolphins, seabirds, and whales of all kinds including humpback ones. The tour lasts 4.5 hours and prices start from $165 NZD.
On the tour, marine scientist guides will provide insights and fun facts while you enjoy beautiful views along the way. A portion of the proceeds also goes directly towards marine mammal conservation.
If you’re planning a trip to Kaikoura, it’s one of the best places on the South Island to see humpback whales! Only a 2.5 hour drive from Christchurch, it’s known for its amazing marine wildlife and well worth a visit.
This 4.5-hour catamaran tour in Kaikoura offers expert commentary from guides motivated to help you spot whales. If you don’t, you’ll get an 80% refund off the $170 NZD cost! You’ll also learn all about the whales’ natural habitat and life cycle, as well as the chance to spot dolphins and seals.
Alternatively, you can take this whale-watching flight over Kaikoura’s coastline to see whales and dolphins from above. What’s awesome is that the whales are tracked so your pilot will know exactly where to find them.
On this tour, I also loved having a birds-eye view of the stunning coast and mountains. This is the perfect tour if you want to see whales without experiencing seasickness. The flight lasts approximately 30 minutes with prices starting from $190 NZD.
Related Read: If you love whale-watching, read my guide on things to know before whale-watching in Kaikoura.
5. Long Tailed and Short-Tailed Bat
Bats are New Zealand’s only native land mammal, and there are two different species to observe: the long-tailed bat and the short-tailed bat.
Long-tailed bats are generally the easier species to spot, and they can be found all over the country, in both rural and urban areas, as well as some of the islands. You can usually spot them at dusk flying near forest edges or even in cities! Despite this, the long-tailed bat is sadly at risk and is currently classed as “nationally critical.”
Short-tailed bats weigh just 12-15 grams (.42-.52 ounces), and look a bit like flying mice with their gray color and large, pointy ears. These little guys love moist forest floors, and can be found in Northland, the central North Island, or in Fiordland areas of the South Island.
Orcas, or killer whales, can be found along the coast of New Zealand’s South Island between October and March every year. They travel in pods of up to 20 and measure between 5-9 meters (16-29 feet) in length, with males being slightly longer than females.
What’s cool about orcas is that, although they can be found all over the world, their diet, behavior, and song varies from region to region – just like humans!
This Half-Day Eco-tour from Picton takes you on a boat trip around the Marlborough Sounds to spot orcas and bottlenose dolphins. You’ll need to arrive at the E-Ko Tours base by 8:30 to start this 4-hour adventure.
You’ll have an expert eco-guide to teach you about the area’s wildlife and how to interact with wild animals safely. What I loved about this cruise was that the waters were so calm that there were no issues with seasickness! The tour operators are also certified by the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) so you can be sure that it’s sustainable and eco-friendly.
7. Hector’s Dolphins
Hector’s dolphins are the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world, with a population of around 15,000 adults. They mostly live along the coast of the South Island and closely resemble Maui dolphins, with rounded dorsal fins and black-and-white markings on their gray bodies.
From Christchurch, you can take a dolphin tour in Akaroa, which is 81 km (50 mi) away. This nature cruise has dolphin-spotting dogs on board to help locate these enchanting creatures. You’ll have beautiful views of the coastline as you glide through the water on a catamaran and spot Hector’s dolphins jumping out of the water.
When I visited, I noticed this tour also had nice touches like complimentary beer or glass of wine, plus freshly baked cookies! While there’s no swimming on this tour, everything else is included for $99 NZD.
If you want to jump into the waters of Akaroa, this Swimming with Wild Dolphins Tour is perfect! The NZ $210 trip includes your mask, wetsuit, and a hot shower afterward. There are only 12 swimmers per boat, and you’ll receive a full safety briefing beforehand to get up close and interact with these beautiful animals without harming them. Swimming with dolphins truly is one of the most amazing experiences in New Zealand and I highly recommend trying it!
Related Read: If you’re based in Christchurch, learn more about the best day trips from the city.
8. Dusky Dolphin
Dusky dolphins can grow up to 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) long and are identifiable by their white bellies and bluish-black backs, which is where their name comes from. These dolphins are also natural acrobats, and can jump up to 25 meters (82 ft) in the air!
They live in subantarctic waters in the southern hemisphere, and in New Zealand you can find them south of the East Cape. They are most commonly spotted in Kaikoura and Admiralty Bay, which is part of the Marlborough Sounds.
Taking this kayaking tour in Kaikoura is an amazing way to see dusky dolphins up close. You’ll paddle through a marine reserve along the area’s beautiful coastline, spotting marine and birdlife as you go.
The trip costs $130 NZD and necessary equipment (dry bags, wet shoes, and gloves) are included. There’s a maximum of 22 kayakers per group so it doesn’t feel too crowded.
If you’re short on time, you can take this day trip from Christchurch to Kaikoura , where a boat will take you to swim or snorkel alongside dusky dolphins. You’ll also have some free time to explore Kaikoura. Prices start at $380 NZD and include hotel pickup and drop-off in central Christchurch, so you don’t need to worry about transportation.
9. New Zealand King Shag
The New Zealand king shag is a rare black and white bird with a long neck, and a yellow beak and feet. It’s endemic to the Marlborough Sounds and there are less than 900 left, so they really are a must-see for keen birdwatchers. You won’t have the chance to see them anywhere else in the world!
You can spot king shags on this half-day Marlborough Sounds cruise from Picton, which takes you around the area’s scenic sunken river valleys and coves to see unique wildlife. You’ll also stop at Ship Cove and see the memorial to Captain Cook, plus Maori wood carvings.
When I did this cruise, I found the guide’s commentary both interesting and educational. They described the flora and fauna of the Marlborough Sounds, as well as the natural history of the area.
The tour costs $96 NZD, and you’ll need to provide your own transport to the London Quay in Picton. You’ll meet at the Beachcomber Cruises Office, but get there a bit early because the ship departs at 9 am sharp!
For something a bit more active, check out this half-day kayaking tour of the Marlborough Sounds from Picton. Guides will help you spot king shags as you paddle around. You may also see other fascinating species like little blue penguins, dolphins, and fur seals. All equipment and guides are included for $102 NZD, but you’ll need to bring your own snacks.
10. New Zealand Sea Lion
The New Zealand sea lion is one of the rarest sea lion species in the world, with a population of just 12,000. As you can probably guess from the name, they’re only found in New Zealand, mostly around the Auckland and Campbell Islands, but numbers are growing along the coast of the South Island and Stewart Island.
Adult males can weigh up to 450 kilograms (992 lbs), while females are much smaller, with a maximum weight of around 160 kilograms (350 lbs) – they are still huge!
Places to see New Zealand sea lions on the South Island include Waipapa Point, Jacks Bay, Nugget Point, and Kaka Point, all of which are dotted on the southern scenic route (the road from Invercargill to Dunedin). You can even take a road trip through the South Island, stopping off to see sea lions and other magical wildlife!
A kea is a type of alpine parrot with green feathers and bright red underwings. One of my favorite things about keas is that they’re famously naughty birds and are nicknamed “the clowns of the Alps.” Farmers have even reported flocks of keas attacking their sheep, but these feisty birds don’t harm humans.
Although, your things and food aren’t safe with these cheeky birds around. When I last hiked the Kepler Track, one of the hut rangers told me how there had been reports of keas opening backpack zippers and stealing food. They sometimes will also come inside your campervan or motorhome to help themself to your kitchen. Or, I’ve even heard about them stealing car keys!
The name “kea” comes from their loud, high-pitched cry which sounds as though they’re squealing “keee-aah!” They’re curious, mischievous, and highly intelligent – in fact, their ability to solve logic puzzles rivals that of a 4-year-old child or a monkey! They’ve even been named the world’s smartest bird.
Keas are the only alpine parrots in the world, and they live on the South Island, usually in Alpine areas, so you can sometimes spot them from ski fields. They are common in Milford Sound and you will almost always see them on the drive from Te Anau to Milford. You can also find them in river valleys and coastal forests along the west coast.
The kaka is a large brown and red parrot, and they’re fairly common in large forests on the South Island. For example, you can see them in Eglinton Valley in Fiordland National Park, along the Milford Track, and in the Whirinaki and Pureora forests. They’re also found offshore on Stewart, Little Barrier, Kapiti, and Codfish islands, as well as in Zealandia in Wellington on the North Island.
Like the kea, the kaka is named after the distinctive sound of its cry and has brightly colored underwings. They have brush-like tongues, which they use to collect nectar, and also eat seeds, fruit, and honeydew.
13. Yellow Eyed Penguins
Yellow eyed penguins are unique to New Zealand and are one of the world’s rarest penguin species. They have a distinctive band of yellow feathers around their eyes and head, and they’re also noted for their length, as they stand at over 60 centimeters (2 ft) tall!
You can spot these interesting feathered friends in Dunedin, in the southeastern part of the South Island.
This wildlife tour will take you to see wildlife along the Otago peninsula with a guide helping you spot these unusual penguins. You’ll also stop at cultural highlights such as Larnach Castle and Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world. The price is $245 NZD, including pickup and dropoff in Port Chalmers. What I liked about this tour was that it had a nice balance of nature and city sights.
14. Little Blue Penguins
Known for their small stature and unique, blue-gray coloring, little blue penguins are undeniably cute! Again, these guys can only be found in New Zealand and Australia, and they spend most of their time at sea before returning to South Island’s shore at the end of the day.
This 90-Minute Evening Penguin Spotting Tour from Harrington Point in Dunedin takes you to a penguin reserve on the Otago Peninsula. Here, you can observe little blue penguins waddling along the beach in the evening. You’ll still have a great vantage point to view the penguin’s natural behavior without disturbing the animals. A tip from our trip here is to also look out for fur seals and sea lions!
The tour is led by a conservationist who will teach you more about the penguins and the efforts to protect them. It costs $49 NZD and was voted one of the top experiences in New Zealand.
15. Blue Duck or Whio
The blue duck, or whio, has special significance in Maori culture, and the name “who” comes from the male bird’s sound. They’re one of the rarest birds in New Zealand and are actually on the 10-dollar note (bill)!
Blue ducks live in fast-flowing rivers and can easily navigate the rapids. They’re also indicator birds – since they need to live in clean water, if you see a blue duck swimming in a river, you know the water is pure!
There are fewer than 3,000 blue ducks left. They were once widespread across the country but are now limited to certain patches along the Urewera, the East Cape, the central North Island, and the west coast of the South Island, including Fiordland National Park. They tend to stick to the high-altitude sections of rivers, and the Tongariro River is one of the best places to see blue ducks.
16. Otago Skink
As well as birds and marine mammals, New Zealand is also home to some unique lizard species, including the Otago skink. These guys grow up to 30 centimeters (12 inches) in length and are great at camouflage, thanks to their green, yellow, and black spots. They’re omnivores and can live up to 16 years in the wild.
Reptile fans can find Otago skinks in, you guessed it, Otago – mostly in the rocky canyons in the Macreas conservation area, or in western Otago between Lake Hawea and Lindis Pass. They like to sit and sun themselves on rocks, and sometimes hide in the crevices when startled.
17. New Zealand Glow Worm (Arachnocampa Luminosa)
This glow worm isn’t actually a worm at all – it’s a kind of fungus gnat that produces a bioluminescent effect in certain stages of its lifecycle. But while the term fungus gnat sounds kind of… well, gross, seeing these glow worms light up the dark is actually a beautiful and rare experience.
When we were there, we enjoyed this Te Anua Glow Worm Cave Tour, which only costs $99 NZD (great value considering it includes a boat cruise!). The 2-hour 15-minute tour was the perfect amount of time to enjoy complimentary tea and coffee and take in the fascinating scenery. On the cruise, you’ll sail across Lake Te Anau and glide through caves, watching in wonder as the glow worms light up the ancient rock formations.
You can also visit glow worm caves in Waitomo, famous for its cave networks. On this 45-minute cave tour, you’ll explore the glow worm caves by boat and foot. You’ll pass through the Glowworm Grotto, with what looks like a constellation of glow worms shining above your head. Included in the $61 NZD pricetag is an educated guide who will share the cave’s history and geological features throughout the tour.
If you want to avoid the long car rides to Waitomo, take a nocturnal bushwalk in Rotorua. While it’s a less popular option than caves, we found this 3-hour trip felt more private and convenient. On our visit here, we even spotted other wildlife, and cute wallabies! The $79 NZD price includes return hotel transfers, light refreshments, and a guide.
The Tui is a feisty blue, green, and bronze honeyeater bird, and it’s generally considered one of New Zealand’s most fascinating birds. Not only does it boast beautiful colors, it can also imitate human speech.
This bird can be seen all over most of New Zealand, except for the Southern Alps, where they’re rarely spotted. They live in both forested and suburban areas, and although their colors can be hard to see from a distance, you can recognize them by the distinctive white tuft on their throats.
19. Morepork Owl
The morepork is a small brown owl with huge eyes and streaked white and brown feathers on its chest. Also known by its Maori name “ruru”, these owls mostly live in forests across the North and South islands.
They’re nocturnal but can be active at dusk and dawn. They’re not considered to be endangered, and sometimes you can even spot them in urban parks or leafy suburban areas!
20. Maui Dolphin
Maui dolphins closely resemble Hector’s dolphins, but they have slightly larger skulls and wider snouts. The two are actually related, and both so small that they could fit in a bathtub! But the Maui dolphin is the North Island subspecies while Hector’s dolphin is found in the waters of the South Island.
There are worryingly few Maui dolphins left in the wild. In fact, some experts think that there may be fewer than 50 left.
Since they’re so rare, you will be very lucky to spot a Maui dolphin. They can only be found off the west coast of the North Island, which is a beautiful and varied area, so even if you don’t spot one of these amazing dolphins, you’ll definitely enjoy your time there and see lots of other wildlife.
Related Read: For those traveling the North Island, you can read about the 27 best hikes for all levels.
21. New Zealand Robin
Unlike the classic red-breasted robin that we all know, the New Zealand robin is identifiable by its white breast instead.
It’s a very friendly bird that will come right up close to you to say hello, and you can find them in forests between Taranaki and the Bay of Plenty on the North Island, or in the forests and scrub of the South Island backcountry.
I found this little guy pictured above in the Marlborough Sounds, but they are pretty common, so this certainly wasn’t my first encounter. They often follow hikers on trails hoping they’ll drop something. It’s really cute but remember not to feed them no matter how much they ask!
22. Fiordland-Crested Penguins
What I find so cute about Fiordland-crested penguins is that their crest makes them look permanently grumpy! They’re classed as endangered, with 2,500-3,000 breeding pairs left.
The best time of year to spot these penguins is from July to November, which is their breeding season. They are very timid and shouldn’t be approached – so you’ll have to view these guys from a distance.
The best place to see Fiordland-crested penguins is inside Fiordland National Park itself – more specifically, in Milford Sound, which is where I saw some! You can see them on this small-boat nature cruise that allows you to get close to the shore, exploring areas bigger boats can’t reach. The tour is just over 2 hours, costs $109 NZD, and has many departure times so it’s easy to fit into your schedule.
If you’re visiting Milford Sound from Queenstown, you can also take this full-day return tour which includes lunch, a local guide, and a sightseeing nature cruise for NZ $247. You’ll travel in a glass-roofed bus to enjoy the scenic drive before setting sail on a 2-hour catamaran journey. Keep your eye out for the Fiordland-crested penguins nesting in the tree roots and rocks!
23. Giant Wētā
If you don’t like insects, you may want to skip this section!
The giant wētā is the largest insect in the world, and its body alone can measure up to 10 cm (3.9 inches) in length – and that’s without adding its legs and antenna into the equation!
Also known as the wētāpunga, it looks a bit like a huge cricket, and it’s considered to be at risk of extinction. Although giant wētā were once found in forests all over the country, they now only exist on Little Barrier Island.
24. Tuatara Lizard
The tuatara lizard isn’t really a lizard at all, but it belongs to an otherwise-extinct group of reptiles which lived alongside dinosaurs.
It may look like a lizard, but unlike true lizards, the tuatara is nocturnal and prefers cooler temperatures. It has spiky scales down its back and tail, and a “third eye” which is covered over with scales and helps the tuatara gauge what time of day it is. Tuataras are 50-80 centimeters (20-31 inches) long, so they’re pretty sizable creatures.
They’re pretty much only found on some of the islands in the Marlborough Sounds on the South Island, as well as some of the islands off of the northeastern coast of the North Island. However, in spite of this, population numbers still stand at between 60,000-100,000.
25. New Zealand Fantail
The New Zealand fantail is the only kind of fantail bird found in the country. Aside from its unique tail, it’s also known for the way in which it’s constantly moving and flitting around.
It has a significant role in Maori mythology, as a harbinger of death. I was definitely surprised to learn this because this brown, cinnamon-breasted bird is so fluffy and sweet-looking!
You can see this unique bird all over New Zealand, including in forests, parks, orchards, and scrublands, especially during the summertime. However, their population tends to decline during prolonged cold and wet periods.
Last but not least, the kākāpō might just be the strangest-looking creature on this list!
It’s a flightless parrot with bright green feathers, an owlish face, a large gray beak, and blue feet. There are just 252 kākāpō left in the world and they can only be found in sanctuaries on three protected, predator-free offshore islands: Codfish Island, Little Barrier Island, and Anchor Island.
The kākāpō was heavily hunted by the Maori, and then wiped out when British colonizers introduced predators like cats, rats, and stoats to New Zealand. Now, each kākāpō is named, tagged, and monitored by the DOC.
Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see one in person but hope to soon!
Thanks for reading!
There you have it, 26 of the most fascinating and fun creatures in New Zealand! If you’re an animal lover or a bird-watcher, there are plenty of opportunities for you here.
I hope my list has inspired you to explore nature and keep your eyes peeled for these animals! If you enjoyed this blog and want more opportunities to spot wildlife, you might like reading more about New Zealand’s best hikes.