Yellow-Eyed Penguins in The Catlins, NZ

I don't know about you, but I've always had "see penguins IRL" as one of the entries towards the top of my bucket list. When Emmett and I moved to New Zealand, I knew that I could not leave the country without at least trying to see these little marine birds. Whilst road-tripping around the Catlins region on the South Island, we got to see penguins (!) much sooner than I'd expected!

Seeing Penguins Part 1: Nugget Point

This past Thursday, Emmett and I were road-tripping the Catlins and ended up at Nugget Point, which has a breathtakingly lush and dramatic landscape. We parked at the car park, then walked for about fifteen minutes through the light drizzle to find these gorgeous views:


The lighthouse at the point overlooks a few outcroppings of land - the "nuggets" of Nugget Point. We watched waves crash on the nuggets for a while before walking back. From the cliffs along the route we saw quite a few fur seals, including a baby. (Click directly on a picture for more detail).

Just before the car park for Nugget Point's lighthouse, we'd seen a sign for Roaring Bay Beach. Deciding to check it out, we were soon greeted by this exciting announcement about the area:

According to the sign, we could potentially see penguins any time after 4 PM. As luck would have it, it was about 7 PM in the evening when we got to Roaring Bay. Unfortunately, though, the viewing hide was completely full of people patiently awaiting a penguin appearance on the beach below. Emmett and I ended up hiding behind this sign along with some hardcore birders armed with binoculars, hoping for a glimpse of a penguin:

I was whispering to Emmett that I really wanted to see a penguin, when suddenly he thought he saw movement on the beach below. Sure enough, there were three yellow-eyed penguins waddling among the rocks! We soon realized two things about these penguins: they're quite small and they blend in very well with their surroundings. The penguin trio consisted of one adult leading two molting juveniles down to the surf. Our bird-watching crew was excitedly whisper-yelling obvious things like "Wow, penguins!" "Three of them!" "They're so small." "There they go!"

See what I was saying about blending in? These guys were virtually the same color as the stones on the beach. We watched them approach the surf before the adult swam away from the other two. The juveniles waited around a bit after the adult left, seemingly distrustful of the literal roaring bay. 

Soon though, the little guys got bored and began their return waddle to the brush on the hillside. - Not before I snapped this next picture, though. See if you can spot their tiny figures on the beach in this zoomed-out shot.

Once they were out of sight, we collectively snapped out of our penguin viewing trance. I noticed that everyone who'd been in the official viewing hide had left it with their cameras in hand to see the penguins on our section of beach. Thus far on our trip, we had only met people who'd tried and failed to catch a glimpse of the shy & elusive hoiho (that's the Maori name for yellow-eyed penguins). I skipped with joy nearly all the way back to our car; I couldn't believe we'd been lucky enough to see three of one of the rarest types of penguin in the world.

 Too thrilled.

Too thrilled.

My one regret? I wish I had a DSLR camera with a zoom lense. Our little Canon can only do so much.

Seeing Penguins Part 2: Curio Bay

Exactly one week later, Emmett and I returned to the Catlins for another day trip. We ended our day at the petrified forests of Curio Bay where we were lucky enough to see yellow-eyed penguins again. When we arrived shortly before 7 PM (seems to be the magic penguin time), we noticed about a dozen people all looking at a cliff-side. There were two baby penguins and their mother just below the bush line of the cliff. Every now and then, we could hear the baby penguins cheeping over the roar of the surf.

We watched them for at least half an hour and then Emmett went to explore the petrified forest (more on that later). Soon, I also took a pause in watching the little hoiho family and went to join him. That's when I noticed another penguin.

This one, presumably a mother, had just hopped up from the surf onto the ancient fossil trees. She was looking warily at the tourists gathered around. We watched her waddle along for a bit and even saw her take a swim in a tidal pool. She got within ten yards of us - it was incredible. I honestly had been so pleased with our distant penguin sighting at Nugget Point... I never imagined we'd see yellow-eyed penguins again - let alone this close. I feel super lucky. 

Where to find rare yellow-eyed penguins in New Zealand
Where to find rare yellow-eyed penguins on New Zealand's South Island