Bucket List

6 Unique Wildlife Species You’ll Encounter in New Zealand

By Alicia Sharp
on  August 29, 2019

If you’re a sucker for encountering the weird and wonderful wildlife of the world then you’ll be pleased to know that New Zealand provides this in bucket loads.

In fact, wildlife encounters are probably one of the most rewarding and intriguing experiences you can have on a New Zealand road trip. From alpine parrots and the world’s smallest dolphin to flightless birds and “living dinosaurs” – the unique wildlife species you’ll encounter in New Zealand are a once in a lifetime experience!

Want to know more about the incredibly unique wildlife in New Zealand? Of course, you do…


No, we’re not referring to the people of New Zealand, although they are pretty weird and wonderful species too… the kiwi bird is the nation’s sweetheart and a great symbol for the uniqueness of New Zealand wildlife.

A unique and curious bird, the kiwi has hair-like feathers, no tail and is the only bird with nostrils at the end of their beaks. It is also uniquely among the very few flightless birds around the world and is continuously being protected from distinction. As Maori have a strong cultural and spiritual association with kiwi, its feathers are valued in weaving kahukiwi (kiwi feather cloak) for people of high ranking.

Despite their popularity across the country, you won’t just find these birds wandering around the streets of Auckland. This elusive and nocturnal bird is found mostly in forested areas and is more commonly heard than seen.

Courtesy to this cute native bird for the world-renowned nickname for New Zealand’s – Kiwi’s!

Best Chances of Seeing a Kiwi:

Spotting a kiwi is on many travellers bucket list when visiting New Zealand. Despite being the country’s most famous bird, seeing a kiwi in the wild is actually incredibly rare! Your best bet of seeing a kiwi is therefore in nocturnal enclosures in kiwi conservatories where staff are working to help with their survival.

If you’re travelling the North Island, you can encounter kiwi at Rainbow Springs in Rotorua, home to the world’s largest kiwi hatchery. If you’re in the South Island then you can head to Queenstown Kiwi Birdlife Park to encounter kiwi or if you’re interested in encountering the rarest kiwi (Rowi) found only in the Okarito forest, head to the West Coast Wildlife Centre in Franz Josef.

Kiwi Bird in New Zealand


Introducing the world’s only alpine parrot in the world – the cheeky Kea!

Native to New Zealand, the kea is an incredibly intelligent bird thought to be as smart as a four-year-old child. These fun-loving birds are famously curious and love to experience new things and solve puzzles.

They are also very playful birds, not only with one another but they also enjoy playing practical jokes on humans such as swooping down to steal people’s belongings or cheekily throwing stones at them. Their cheeky, playful and curious manners mean they’ve been notorious for behaviours such as dismantling cars, yanking on ariels and pecking at the rubber around the doors when given the chance.

This playfulness and curiosity, unfortunately, meant that their relationship with humans didn’t get off to a great start until they were better understood and there are now many conservation programs set up to help the kea population increase again.

Best Chances of Seeing a Kea:

Kea live only in the South Island of New Zealand most commonly in or near alpine areas, so you’ll most likely come across these cheeky birds on your drive through Arthur’s Pass and on the road to Milford Sound in the Fordland National Park.

Kea bird in New Zealand

Yellow-eyed penguin (Hoiho)

You might recognize the face of this friendly penguin from the back of the New Zealand five-dollar bill?

Totally unique to New Zealand the yellow-eyed penguin is known to be one of the world’s rarest penguins. Standing tall at up to 68cm high and weighing around 6kg, the yellow-eyed penguin is also known as the 4th largest penguin of the world.

You’ll mostly find these penguins waddling along the coastline and off-shore islands of the South Island though they can be found more inland too. Uniquely for penguins, they are solitary nesters and will travel quite far inland to do so.

With a pale-yellow head, large yellow irises and a bright yellow headband, the yellow-eyed penguins have well and truly earned their name. Also nicknamed ‘the noisy bird’, you’ll probably hear the shrill sounding call of these penguins before you spot them as also recognised in their Maori name Hoiho meaning “noise shouter”.

Best Chances of Seeing a Yellow-Eyed Penguin:

Yellow-eyed penguins aren’t generally in captivity, so your best bet at seeing them is in the wild. Living and breeding around the south-east coast of the South Island, if you’re interested in having a friendly encounter with a yellow-eyed penguin then you can head towards Otago from Christchurch before or after your South Island tour with Wild Kiwi. You can find out more information about when and where to see the yellow-eyed penguin here.

Yellow-Eyed Penguin in New Zealand


Do you ever wish that you could go back in time to witness the life of dinosaurs… well, this little guy might be as close as you’ll get!

Found only in New Zealand, the tuatara is the only surviving reptile species from the dinosaur era, giving them the nickname the “living dinosaur”. They have a third eye at the top of their head and spiny back as recognised in their Maori name tuatara meaning “peaks on the back”. Living to more than 100 years old, it’s no wonder tuatara are viewed as guardians of knowledge and are highly important to Maori culture.

Although the largest reptile in New Zealand, they are quite an unusual reptile as they prefer cool weather and do not survive well in temperatures over 25 degrees. The tuatara can remain active in near-freezing temperatures below 5 degrees that would put many other reptiles out of action. For this reason, the tuatara is most active in the evenings.

A national icon in New Zealand, the tuatara appears on several postage stamps and although the five-cent coin no longer exists in New Zealand, they were the face of the coin when it was around.

Best Chances of Seeing a Tuatara:

Most tuatara exists on windswept offshore New Zealand islands where they spend their days in burrows or basking lazily in the sun for this reason your best bet at encountering a “living dinosaur” is in conservation centers around New Zealand.

If you’re travelling the North Island, you can encounter tuatara at Rainbow Springs in Rotorua. If you’re in the South Island, then you can head to Queenstown Kiwi Birdlife Park to encounter tuatara or at the West Coast Wildlife Centre in Franz Josef.

Tuatara in New Zealand

Hector’s Dolphin (Tutumairekurai)

New Zealand is home to more species of dolphin than anywhere else in the world, but there are one species of dolphin that is particularly precious to us and that is Hector’s dolphin.

Hector’s dolphin is the smallest and rarest marine dolphin in the world, measuring up to just 1.4 meters long. Distinguishable from other dolphins by their short snout and rounded back dorsal fin similar to a mickey mouse ear, some say they look somewhat a little like a rugby ball with flippers!

Hector’s dolphins live their best life simply eating and playing. They’re not too fussy with their eating and tend to hunt more to the size of the prey rather than actual species. They love to surf waves, play with seaweed and are incredibly friendly and inquisitive creatures. As such, they love coming up close to boats which sometimes makes us wonder who is looking at who.

There are two subspecies of Hector’s dolphin, the South Island Hector’s dolphin and Maui’s dolphin which is found in the North Island. Maui’s dolphin is critically endangered and estimated to have a population of only 55 left.

Best Chances of Seeing a Hector’s Dolphin:

You’ll find Hector’s dolphin riding the waves around the inshore waters of the South Island of New Zealand with Akaroa harbour and Banks peninsula near Christchurch hosting the highest population in one location.

Though Hector’s dolphins can be a little harder to encounter, Kaikoura is one of the country’s top dolphin destinations where you can even swim with dolphins in their own environment – a total bucket list experience!

Hector's Dolphin

New Zealand Fur Seal (Kekeno)

Would you believe us if we told you that these fur cuties were once hunted close to extinction for their meat?

Thankfully now a protected species in New Zealand, the New Zealand Fur Seal are abundant on South Island coastlines. Although they tend to stick to the coast, their curious nature means that they’ve also been known to waddle their way into people’s backyards!

As suggested by their name, the New Zealand Fur Seal are covered with two layers of fur and are characterised by their pointy-noise, external ear flaps, and long pale whiskers. They love lazing about in the sun on rocky shorelines and are very playful, friendly and curious when in the water. Despite being rather large mammals of up to 150kg, the flippers on these fellas’ help them plunge under the sea at up to 50km/hour. As the most agile seals on land, New Zealand fur seals can also reach speeds of up to 20km/hour on land too!

Best Chances of Seeing a Fur Seal:

Your best bet of seeing New Zealand Fur Seal’s is definitely in Kaikoura. Take a stroll on the Peninsula walk which takes you along a rugged East Coast clifftop track where you’ll see plenty of fur seals with a magical backdrop of New Zealand’s steep mountains.

Fancy an even closer encounter? A totally unique experience you can have while visiting Kaikoura is to swim and snorkel with fur seal in their own environment. You won’t believe how curious, friendly and playful New Zealand fur seal can be in the water.

If you don’t get the chance to explore Kaikoura, you’ll also have a chance of seeing them when visiting Fiordland National Park. On the Milford Sound cruise, it’s quite likely you’ll spot a fur seal or two basking in the sun on seal rock or frolicking around the rocks.

New Zealand Fur Seal in Kaikoura

With all the weird and wonderful wildlife that calls New Zealand home, there are quite a few unique surprises to be found in this incredible country. If you’d like to come and check out this totally unique wildlife for yourself on a New Zealand road trip you can check out our New Zealand tours here!

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