From itsy-bitsy birds to whopping whales, New Zealand's native animals will wow you
Sarah Bennett & Lee Slater
Cast adrift from Gondwanaland and propelled by awesome geological forces into a remote corner of the Pacific Ocean, New Zealand has evolved in mysterious ways. So too has its wildlife. Visitors will discover plenty of opportunities to meet its native creatures – in their natural environments and conservation reserves, often up close and sometimes in emotional encounters.
Kiwi – a national treasure
This flightless bird represents New Zealand on everything from flags to fridge magnets. All five species are predominantly forest dwellers, nocturnal, and threatened with extinction, making after-dark spotting tours a truly special experience. Kiwi are more readily viewed in captivity, such as at Pukaha Mount Bruce where you can see other rare forest birds such as takahe and kokako, and the cheeky kaka that steals the show during lunchtime eel feeding.
Tuatara – a 'living fossil'
Pukaha Mount Bruce is also home to tuatara, an ancient reptile tracing its ancestry back beyond the dinosaur age. They're a distinguished-looking creature, strangely mesmerizing even as they do their best impression of rocks and foliage. (Come on, shake a leg!) They live wild only on offshore islands, but can be seen on the mainland in tuatariums including those at Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington zoos, and Invercargill's Southland Museum.
Whales – resident and migrant
The Kaikoura coast is one of the world's best whale-watching destinations. Resident sperm whales gorge themselves in its rich, fishy waters all year round. Come winter, however, others join the fray – humpback, pilot, blue and southern right – calling in for munchies as they migrate from the Antarctic to the tropics. June to August is the best time to see them, with the bonus of snow-capped mountain scenery. View the spectacle from the air, or on a Whale Watch boat tour.
Seals – fat, sleek, whiskery, wonderful!
Kaikoura is also a great place to see New Zealand fur seals (kekeno), which loll about on Point Kean and sometimes in the adjacent car park. In the water, however, they are agile and playful, making Kaikoura's Seal Swim and Kayak Tours trips a real treat. Other reliable land-based seal-spotting sites include Cape Palliser (two hours drive from Wellington), Cape Foulwind on the West Coast, and Otago's Nugget Point. Further south along the Catlins coast, Surat Bay is regularly visited by the formidable Hooker's Sea Lion.
Albatrosses – the world's biggest seabirds
The world's largest seabirds live most of their lives at sea. Fourteen of the estimated 24 species breed in or around New Zealand, including one of the largest – the Northern Royal. A rare opportunity to observe them is offered at Dunedin's Royal Albatross Centre – a worthy conservation reserve offering museum-style displays as well as fascinating tours of the Tairoa Head breeding colony. The soaring and circling is an awe-inspiring sight, as are their clumsy approaches – landing is clearly not their forte!
Penguins – the cutest critter on earth?
Speaking of clumsy seabirds, here come the penguins – waddling their way to the nest after a day's fishing. New Zealand has more penguin species than anywhere in the world, three of which nest on the mainland – the Fiordland crested, Yellow-eyed, and Little Blue, the world's smallest. To learn about them and view them sensitively, take a tour with their kaitiaki (guardians) such as Oamaru's Blue Penguin Colony, Penguin Place, and the Royal Albatross Centre, all around coastal Otago.
Dolphins – poetry in motion
New Zealand's waters are home to nine dolphin species, varying greatly in appearance, numbers, and conservation status. The smallest is also the rarest –the Hector's – which can be viewed (and even swum with) in Akaroa Harbour, near Christchurch. More dolphin tours are run in the Bay of Islands, Bay of Plenty, Kaikoura and the Marlborough Sounds, although they surface all around the coast, spied from the shore and regularly spotted by interisland ferry passengers.
The Department of Conservation and Television New Zealand collaborated on a neat series of four-minute documentaries about native wildlife, which you can view here.
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