Guide To New Zealand Penguins

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

Read about 'Guide To New Zealand Penguins' on USAVE, the place for all things car rental.

As a small island nation in the South Pacific Ocean, it’s no surprise that New Zealand is home to many different species of penguins. These penguins live, breed and fish around the New Zealand coastline, and there are many opportunities for members of the public to get a glimpse into their private bird lives without disturbing them.

Though some of them have seasonal patterns, others make a permanent home on the coast and can be seen at any time of year. Thanks to nesting and breeding programs, the endangered species are being managed and protected to remain for future generations.

New Zealand Penguin Species Information

Of the seventeen species of penguin found throughout the world, six of them make their home in New Zealand due to its abundant feeding and nesting opportunities.

1. Blue Penguin

The smallest species of penguin in the world, blue penguins (also known as little penguins) are tiny at just 25cm tall. They are found in many places around the coasts of New Zealand and Australia, and only come ashore at night to return to their nests and feed their young and partners. During the day, they’re out fishing the seas and will return at evening in rafts of 5-20 penguins to help protect against predators. In Oamaru there’s a specially built viewing area where you can wait at the expected time for the penguins to make their commute home.



2. Erect Crested

These penguins make their home on remote islands such as the Antipodes and Bounty Islands – if you see one on the mainland, you are very lucky! They stand at about 50cm tall, and are named for the yellow eyebrow-like crests above each of their eyes. This is somewhat similar to other local species of penguins, so they can also be identified by the crest starting on their bill. They often climb very steep rock platforms in order to reach their nests and breed, producing two eggs with the expectation that one will be lost.

3. Fiordland

Named for the area where they’re found, these penguins are only found in the coastal rainforests of the south-west of the South Island as well as Stewart Island. They are extremely timid and shy, which makes them very rare to see in the wild. They nest individually or in lose colonies, rather than in large groups like many other penguins. They mate for life, returning to the same nest at the same time each June, then separating during the rest of the year.

4. Rockhopper

One of the smallest crested penguins, Rockhoppers stand at around 40cm and are fairly stout birds. True to their name, they often nest on the rocky coasts of isolated southern islands such as Auckland and Campbell Island. They may climb very steep cliff and rock faces in order to breed under overhangs or in caves, and will often share the breeding location with Erect-Crested penguins. The rugged location protects Rockhopper chicks from predators such as stoats, weasels, cats and rats. They stay on the colony for roughly half the year before returning to the sea.



5. Snares Crested

Snares Crested penguins only breed on the tiny Snares Islands, hence their name. The islands that are located in the South Pacific are covered in a forest of tree daisies, and the entire population (estimated around 30,000 breeding pairs) returns to these islands at the same time every year to mate and nest. The parents take turns guarding the nest and going out fishing to provide for the baby, depending on the stage of the chick. Eventually, both parents will leave while the chick roams and is looked after by other breeding pairs.

6. Yellow Eyed Penguin

The most widely-known penguin in New Zealand is also one of our rarest species. They breed around the south-east of the South Island, as well as on a few sub-Antarctic islands. They are named for the distinctive yellow stripe that runs through the eye and around the back of the head, and they are not very social birds. Rather than nesting in tight colonies, they tend to nest together but out of sight of one another. On the mainland, the population is heavily threatened by introduced species such as dogs, cats, rats and stoats.

New Zealand Penguin Viewing Sites

The best way to view penguins in New Zealand is in the wild – you may not see as much of them as at a zoo or aquarium, but it will give you a truer insight into the behaviour and environment of these flightless birds. A New Zealand rental car road trip around the coast of the South Island will bring you to many different breeding and nesting locations of several of the species of penguins.

Of course, some species can be only found in their remote breeding locations, so the only way you will be able to view them is at a wildlife facility. These facilities also play a crucial part in breeding programs and safeguarding species from extinction, so supporting them with your patronage is extremely important.



One of the easiest species to see in New Zealand is the blue penguin, which comes ashore every night at dusk to the breeding centre in Oamaru. You can also see them around Bank’s Peninsula near Christchurch, where tours take you to either the nesting grounds at night or out onto the sea during the day. The yellow-eyed penguin can also be seen in the wild, however they are very shy and easily disturbed from their nests.

The purpose-built bird hides are the perfect place to watch them without scaring them, and can be found along the Otago coastline. Fiordland penguins are difficult to view due to the isolation of their nesting grounds, so a guided boat tour is often the best solution. The best time is early morning or late afternoon, and you should never approach a penguin – for a closer look, use binoculars.

Most other penguin species in New Zealand nest on remote sub-Antarctic islands which can only be viewed through an expensive boat tour. For a chance to see a penguin, these are your best options. If you have the opportunity to view these flightless sea birds in their natural habitat, it is absolutely worth taking it.

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