Where to See Wild Penguins on New Zealand's South Island

Did you know that you can see penguins in the wild in New Zealand? In a beautiful area known as The Catlins on the South Island, rare yellow-eyed penguins can be spotted around dusk or dawn. The Catlins is on the Southeast coast and comprises 730 square miles (1900 sq km) of land. It's got nearly everything you'd want to see in New Zealand: stunning beaches, rainforest, waterfalls, and (of course) incredible wildlife. 

I don't know about you guys, but I have always had "see penguins in the wild" as one of the entries at the top of my bucket list. Therefore, I was pumped to discover that penguins are native to New Zealand's South Island. When Emmett and I moved to New Zealand for our Working Holiday, I knew that I could not leave the country without at least trying to see some of those little marine birds. Luckily, whilst road-tripping around the Catlins region on the South Island, we got to see penguins much sooner than I'd expected!

For more on taking a road trip through the Catlins, check out this post.

Where to See Penguins Pt. 1 

Nugget Point & Roaring Bay

Location: 1.5 hours south of Dunedin via SH1 and the Southern Scenic Route (SSR) OR 2 hours north of Invercargill via the SSR

Two Thursdays ago, Emmett and I were driving through the Catlins and ended up at Nugget Point. The landscape there was breathtakingly lush and dramatic. We parked our car and then walked for about fifteen minutes through the light drizzle to find these gorgeous views:


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

Just down from the entrance to the car park for Nugget Point were signs noting a place called Roaring Bay Beach. We hadn't had enough of the stunning views yet, so we decided to give it a look. To our delight, we were soon greeted by this exciting announcement about the area:

yellow-eyed penguin viewing at roaring bay in the catlins, nz

According to the sign - again, click the picture for more detail - it was possible see penguins any time after 4 PM. Fortunately for us it was about 7 PM in the evening when we arrived at Roaring Bay. There was a long walk that led to a tin shed that was a "viewing hide." The New Zealand Department of Conservation has set up this hide so that the shy penguins wouldn't be frightened by groups of tourists hoping for a peek. The viewing hide was completely full of people when we arrived. What to do? We certainly didn't want to scare off any penguins nearby by being out in the open. Ultimately, Emmett and I ended up hiding behind this sign (see below) along with some hardcore birders armed with binoculars, hoping for a glimpse of a penguin:

penguin viewing, catlins NZ

As I was whispering to Emmett that I really wanted to see a penguin, he cut me off, saying that he thought he saw movement on the beach. 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 the penguins blending in with their surrounding? These cuties were virtually the same color as the stones on the beach. We watched the trio approach the surf before the adult ended up swimming away. The juveniles waited around a bit after, seemingly distrustful of the (literal) roaring bay. 

Soon though, the little ones must have got bored. They 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:

Yellow-Eyed Penguins at Roaring Bay, New Zealand

Once they were out of sight, our group snapped out of our collective penguin-viewing trance. 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 better camera. Our little Canon point and shoot could only do so much.

Where to See Penguins Pt. 2

Curio Bay

Location: 1 hour north of Invercargill via the SSR // 2 hours & 40 minutes south of Dunedin via the SH1 & the SSR

Exactly one week after our last drive through the Catlins, Emmett and I returned for another day trip. After hiking to a waterfall, we ended our day at the petrified forests of Curio Bay. At Curio, we were lucky enough to see yellow-eyed penguins again. We didn't even have to wait. When we arrived shortly before 7 PM (I think 7 PM is the magic penguin-spotting time), we noticed about a dozen people all staring at a cliff-side. We approached and saw two baby penguins and their mother just below the bush line of the cliff. Every now and then, we could even hear the baby penguins peeping and cheeping over the loud crashing surf.

Yellow-Eyed Penguins at Curio Bay, New Zealand

We must have watched those three for at least half an hour until we went to explore the petrified forest. I was walking along, enjoying looking at all the wood-turned-rock when I noticed another penguin.

A yellow-eyed penguin standing on kelp at Curio Bay, NZ
Curio Bay, NZ is home to a population of rare yellow-eyed penguins

This one, presumably a mother, had just hopped up out of the surf and onto kelp washed up on Curio Bay's ancient fossil trees. She looked warily around at the tourists that had gathered a safe distance from her. About 20 of us watched her waddle across the rocks and she even took a swim in a tidal pool. She approached within ten yards of us and it was genuinely unbelievable. I had been so pleased with our distant penguin sighting at Nugget Point... I had never imagined that I would see yellow-eyed penguins again - let alone this close. I still feel super lucky to this day to have seen them twice.

How to find penguins on New Zealand's South Island | Wildlife in New Zealand | Penguins New Zealand | New Zealand Travel on a Budget #newzealand