An Unforgettable Evening With New Zealand’s Little Blue Penguins in Dunedin

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Did you know that New Zealand is home to two species of penguin?

Most people don’t before they arrive.

The country is home to little blue penguins, the smallest species in existence, and yellow-eyed penguins, the rarest species in existence.

It’s a unique experience to visit Dunedin and experience these wild penguins in their element. Thanks to the sustainability efforts of New Zealand, they have made it safe for tourists to watch these animals while also protecting the penguins from harm.

With their help, the penguin populations have flourished and the money from tourism has been able to help support research and practices that continue to allow these penguins to thrive.

If you’re looking for an unforgettable experience, you need to take a New Zealand penguin tour to spot these adorable creatures in the wild. Read on to learn more about how you can see penguins in New Zealand and my experience on a Dunedin penguin tour.

I recommend this penguin viewing tour

Where to See Penguins in New Zealand

There are many places to see penguins in New Zealand.

Stewart Island is the best place to see both little blue penguins and yellow-eyed penguins.

Munro Beach is home to the Fiordland crested penguin, the second rarest breed in the world.

Oamaru is the main place to view and enjoy little blue penguins. This is where you’ll find the Dunedin penguins.

The Catlins is home to the yellow-eyed penguin.

The Banks Peninsula is home to the white-flippered penguin. It can only be seen on tours into the marine reserve.

Types of Penguins in South Island New Zealand

New Zealand has two species of penguins: the yellow-eyed penguin (the rarest species) and the blue penguin (the smallest species). Although blue penguins, or fairy penguins as they call them in Australia, are less rare, they’re absolutely adorable.

Since the yellow-eyed ones are bigger and have somewhat freaky red eyes, I figured I’d stick with the little blue penguins.

Additionally, New Zealand is home to two other species of penguin: the Fiordland crested penguin and the white-flippered penguin.

These are often less sought-after by tourists.

The most common penguin that tours find are the little blue penguins.

Little blue penguin in Dunedin
A close up with a little blue penguin.

Little Blue Penguins

Little blue penguins are fascinating creatures. They average 30cm tall and weigh under 10kg. They’re the size of most stuffed animals I had as a kid.

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The penguins are named for the colour of their feathers. Their bellies are silver-white while their backs are a blue-slate grey.

These little birds struggle for survival because they’re total bad asses.

Moats and possums, invasive species in New Zealand, have been picking them off because their easier prey than rabbits or kiwibirds. Unlike most prey, they don’t run. These tiny, rotund birds stand their ground or even approach the predator.

Since they don’t have a natural defense against these species, it usually doesn’t end well for the little blue penguins.

Humans are also a big problem.

People destroy their habitat, separate their nests from direct access to the water, disorient them with headlights so they get lost or accidentally run them over.

Viewing the penguins coming home each night was almost a common pastime in New Zealand decades ago. Back then, there were no viewing platforms or charges to watch the little blue penguins waddle up the sandy shore to their nests.

But people were getting too close. There was no protection from predators. The blue penguins couldn’t be well monitored since they dig burrows for their nests.

I recommend this blue penguin viewing tour

A group of little blue penguins scurrying home up the beach at night in Dunedin

Dunedin Penguin Colony

Now, viewing blue penguins is regulated. There are some areas where you might see them without paying a fee. But most spots with large colonies are organized to protect the penguins.

The penguins live in nesting boxes that mimic their natural burrows, but with removable lids so they can be checked on. Light pollution is monitored so the penguins don’t get disoriented. Rabbit-proof fencing is used to prevent other prey from drawing predators to the area.

It’s working.

The populations of many colonies are growing. The one I visited in Dunedin has over 500 little blue penguins living in it now. A decade ago, that seemed like a dream.

I recommend this penguin viewing tour

Best Time of Year to See Penguins in New Zealand

The penguins are most populous around New Zealand in breeding season, from July to November.

If you visit outside of this window, you may see some penguins, but it’s less likely.

For example, the Royal Albatross Centre gave an expectation of up to 70 penguins at the height of the breeding season, but you’d be lucky to get 5 on the off-season.

Best Blue Penguin Tour in Dunedin

I booked my tour to see the blue penguins through the Royal Albatross Centre, a 45-minute drive outside of Dunedin. The tour cost $30 NZD per adult (a very low rate for 2.5 hours of penguin viewing).

You can combine this tour with an Albatross viewing tour or add on transportation (during certain times of the year).

I chose Royal Albatross mostly because of their location. They were the closest to the city I was planning to spend the weekend in.

Their price was reasonable. And they kept telling me they were seeing penguins.

It took half an hour of staring into the inky waves before we spotted them.

I recommend this penguin viewing tour

My Little Blue Penguin Tour Experience in Dunedin

I recommend this penguin viewing tour

Dunedin beach at night
Our view while waiting for the blue penguins.

Waiting for Blue Penguins

Blue penguins go out to sea alone at dawn. But they return together. The birds gather in the water and form a raft. They pile close together, creating a dark shadow in the water. As they move closer to the beach, they start to porpoise – rising above the water like a dolphin getting air.

The raft moves with surprising speed. One moment you spot it, the next there’s a flurry of splashes from the porpoising penguins and then they’re waddling up the beach.

They stumble out of the water leaning forward like they’re using the weight of their head to pull them out of the water. They keep their little wings raised by their sides to keep their balance as they race towards home.

Home, in this case, was up a rather large sand dune.

The penguins, still clustered together, raced in a flurry of sleek silver-blue up the uneven ground. A few hopped over pebbles while others used pure momentum to get up the ridge.

Then the noise started.

For such little birds my god can they scream. Mates called their partners home. Others seemed to join in the cacophony for the pure thrill of it. Or maybe it was all a ploy to burst the eardrums of the large figures with a dozen cameras poised.

Either way, it was almost enough to make me fall out of love with little blue penguins.

The sounds is a sort of warble – like when the seagull in The Little Mermaid tries to sing. If I didn’t know it was the penguins, I would have been seriously concerned for the frog croaking like it’s gravely ill.

I recommend this penguin viewing tour

Little Blue Penguin Rafts

After the excitement of the first raft died down, we went back to waiting. A dozen shadowed figures stood beside me, scanning the ocean for any sign of more tiny birds.

It took longer this time before someone spotted a small raft.

There were less birds, but the thrill was just as intense. Now we knew their path. Cameras turned before the birds did. I didn’t even look at my screen to make sure it was facing the right direction. It was all about the penguins.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the little blue marvels.

Seriously, how have they survived so long? Flightless, fearless, tiny birds shouldn’t still exist. But I’m so glad they do. I would have paid thousands to get to see them.

Raft of blue penguins coming up the beach in Dunedin at night

It’s Not Over Yet!

We were treated to a third, medium-sized raft of penguins right before we left.

I’d been so focused on one bird, standing stock still right next to the platform, that I missed the initial sighting. I clambered across the deck, willing my shoes not to thud against the wood as I raced to see them.

One penguin had been pacing the shore for nearly 20 minutes all alone. We were worried he was lost. It turned out he had just been waiting for his pals to show up.

The raft burst forth from the ocean, sweeping him up in their haste to get home. He didn’t seem fazed by it, easily sinking into the blur of penguins.

This raft went up a dune further away. They were gone much faster than the first two. But I savoured every second of it.

I had to. How long will it be before I see another wild penguin?

The Final Penguin Count

All told, we saw about 55 penguins that night. The first raft was extremely large with over 20 little blue penguins bursting from the water together.

I had been trying to lower my expectations the entire week before my trip, convincing myself that it’d be ok if I didn’t see any at all. Seeing even 2 would have been amazing.

But 55?

Never ever did I consider that there would be so many.

New Zealand, you’re always surprising me!

I recommend this penguin viewing tour

Cost to View Blue Penguins in Dunedin

The cost will depend on which blue penguin tour in Dunedin you use.

Mine cost $30 NZD per person. Others can cost up to $50 NZD per person.

The price may be higher if you get shuttle service to and from your lodgings.

Or it could be higher if, like me, you need to take a taxi and end up spending hundreds of dollars by accident.

I recommend this penguin viewing tour

Tips for Viewing Blue Penguins in Dunedin

  • Bundle up! It is cold and windy at the penguin viewing stations. You’ll be standing still for a long time in the dark, so be sure to have some mittens and a scarf on top of a fleece or a small jacket.
  • Turn off your flash! It blinds the poor little penguins. They will tell you to do this beforehand, but if you don’t know how, research it ahead of time.
  • Wear your glasses! The penguins are far away so if you’re like my friends who always leave their glasses, bring them. You won’t want to miss out on the sight.
  • Do not feed the penguins! In fact, you’re supposed to be quiet enough that they won’t even realize you’re there. This is not a way to interact with penguins, it’s a tour to watch them in their natural habitat.

I recommend this penguin viewing tour

Is it sustainable to spot blue penguins?

Yes!

These blue penguin viewing stations are very sustainable. They use a special type of light that is low and aimed down to create a dim viewing platform that won’t blind or confuse the penguins.

They do not lure the penguins or interfere in their life in any way.

They also have lots of rules for us tourists to ensure that we do not distract or confuse the penguins as they make their way home.

The money from these tours goes back into penguin research, rehabilitation, and education for the public.

New Zealand Penguin Viewing Tours

I recommend this penguin viewing tour

Wrap Up: Is it Worth it?

My animal adventures in New Zealand have been the highlights. From swimming with wild dolphins in Kaikoura to laughing as a cheeky Kea bird try to steal a bus’s wipers to seeing baby kiwibirds at a rescue centre to watching little blue penguins come in from the ocean – it’s all been incredible.

Those are the kinds of once-in-a-lifetime experiences you have in New Zealand.

I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to see all of the beauty this country has to offer. There’s something so magical about it – and I’m not just talking about the hobbits.

When you come to New Zealand, make sure to soak up these chances to experience nature in such a unique way. Go see the wild blue penguins waddle up the beach to join their family for the night.

If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

I recommend this penguin viewing tour

FAQs About Blue Penguins Dunedin

Are Little Blue Penguins Endangered?

No, blue penguins are not classified as an endangered species. They are “least concern” meaning that their population is decreasing, but not at such an alarming rate that they are in danger of going extinct.

What do Blue Penguins Eat?

Little blue penguin parents work tirelessly to feed their young during the entire breeding season. Their diet consists of anchovies, squid, sardines, and small crustaceans. They even eat krill.

Where can you see blue penguins in Dunedin?

There are a number of areas on the Otago Peninsula where you can spot little blue penguins.
Join a wildlife tour for your best chance to view these small birds.
Pilots Beach is also known for having blue penguins.

Are there penguins in New Zealand?

Yes! Penguins are native to New Zealand. Little blue penguins can be found on the Otago Peninsula in Dunedin, while yellow-eyed penguins tend to live further north.

Are you guaranteed to see penguins?

Absolutely not. Penguins are wild animals and you never know when they will make their appearance.
Even if you’re on a tour, there is no guarantee.

How many blue penguins will you see?

It totally depends.
It is based on the season, the amount of penguins who go out to fish for the day, and the weather.
Some people see none, while others like us see 55.

Watch some more little blue penguins come in from the sea!


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