We came to Dunedin for one reason: to find Otago Peninsula wildlife for which the region is known. This unique habitat in New Zealand is home to some of the most rare species in the world. The Otago Peninsula wildlife that you’re able to spot in its natural habitat made for a must-do experience during our short stay in Dunedin. We ultimately set out to find wildlife around the Otago Peninsula with Elm Wildlife Tours, before weighing out a few different options.
The Otago Peninsula truly is a unique place when it comes to the animals who inhabit the area. It contains the only mainland albatross breeding colony in the world. It is home to the most rare species of sea lion in the world. And the Otago Peninsula has a colony of the endangered yellow-eyed penguins, which is the most rare penguin species in the world (only about 5,000 left on earth).
Where to Find Wildlife on Otago Peninsula
We found that there are a number of different options to view wildlife on the Otago Peninsula.
Otago Peninsula Self Drive
Renting a car for the day and self-driving around the Peninsula seemed like a viable way to go. Sandfly Bay is reachable by car and is a known area where sea lions congregate and sometimes yellow-eyed penguins are spotted. If you already have your own car, self driving is a good option to consider where you can potentially see Otago Peninsula wildlife for free.
But we didn’t have a car and we read some mixed accounts on the chances of actually seeing the penguins. We also weren’t really sure if we’d be able to find the best places for wildlife viewing on the Peninsula. We also had heard that Sandfly Bay can sometimes get a bit crowded and we even read a cringe-worthy story of irresponsible tourists in this area scaring off this endangered species.
Otago Peninsula Boat Tour
There are also some boat tours in the surrounding waters of the Otago Peninsula, which seemed like a fantastic option to see some sea life, like dolphins. This seemed like a great add-on if we had more time in the Dunedin area. But we were really hoping to see some of the rare yellow-eyed penguins in which the Otago Peninsula is one of the few places in the world in which they are easily viewable in the wild.
Otago Peninsula Land Tour
Finally we discovered Elm Wildlife Tours which takes visitors in their minibus and on short hikes on the peninsula during a half-day tour in the afternoon & evening to view lots of different wildlife, including the elusive yellow-eyed penguin. They take small groups onto their private conservation area, only accessible on a tour with Elm Wildlife Tours which is home to two yellow-eyed penguin colonies. Short on time and with penguins on our mind, this seemed to be the best fit for us. We were just thrilled when they accepted us as guests on their Encounter Tour.
Elm Wildlife Encounter Tour
The wildlife of the Otago Peninsula seems to be more active in the late afternoon and evening hours, so our 3:00 pm pick-up seemed like it would give us our best chances of finding penguins in the Otago Peninsula.
We joined our other tour mates, a mix of nationalities, as we received some light commentary from Shaun & Jane about Dunedin, the Harbor, and the Otago Peninsula itself.
Speaking about the harbor, Shaun mentioned how sea lions don’t ever come into the harbor close to the city. As if right on cue, we were all then astonished to see a sea lion bobbing up and down right in the harbor! Even Shaun and Jane seemed surprised by this . They said it had been years since they’d seen a sea lion in the harbor. I guess we got lucky with this siting. What a cool start to the tour!
Finding Albatross on the Otago Peninsula
Eventually we reached the Royal Albatross Centre at the Taiaroa headland, where we were able to get out the van for some quiet time in hopes of seeing these majestic birds. Along the way the entire peninsula offered some amazing landscapes, so it was nice to get out to see the sheer cliffs drop down into the sea as waves crashed down below.
But the real reason for this stop was to hopefully find an albatross. The Taiaroa Head breeding colony is actually the only colony anywhere in the world that is based on mainland, so our chances of seeing some albatrosses seemed good at this unique place.
But unfortunately we had calm wind on the day of our tour, which deters the albatross from taking flight and diminishes our chances of seeing the birds.
Shaun provided all sorts of interesting facts and information about these enormous and majestic birds. For example, did you know that albatross are the largest sea birds in the world? We almost couldn’t believe it when he told us that an albatross’ wingspan grows to over 3 meters (about 10 feet)!
It was just then when from around the hill, one of these gigantic birds swooped in right overhead! Seeing those wings stretched out as the albatross soared majestically right above us was just a magical site! That wing-length stat mentioned earlier seemed to actually check out!
There were three albatross in total flying off in the distance. One curious bird would tend to fly near us every few minutes or so. After a while, it was radio silence and they had all seemed to disappear.
After we hung around for another 15 minutes during some free time, we decided to return to the van and continue on with the tour. It was right then that an albatross reappeared out of seemingly thin air from behind our backs and soared within what seemed like just a few meters to the side of us. Absolutely incredible!
Birdwatching on the Otago Peninsula
The tour continued in the minibus as we drove past some wetlands where other native birds tend to congregate. We stopped briefly to spy on some stilts and oystercatchers, as they waded around the shallow marsh waters.
Entering the Conservation Area
Eventually we made our way up some coastal hills and into private farmland. Elm Wildlife Tours has an agreement with the farmers and they are the only ones who can access this area. Well, only Elm and the grazing sheep, of course.
Here we split up into two smaller groups to allow for more intimate viewing. Shaun took about 10 people over to the right to explore a seal colony while Jane guided us down towards a beach, where we hoped to catch a glimpse of some penguins.
Upon walking down, Jane showed us a few penguin burrows. Gazing into the holes you could actually see some eyes and feathers down in there staring back at us. It was really neat!
Close Encounters with a Sizable Sea Lion
As we got closer to the beach we noticed a huge Hooker Sea Lion, which are the most rare of the world’s five species of sea lions.
We needed to continue along the beach to access the penguin-viewing hide, but this big sea lion was in our path. We all looked on at the big guy as Jane filled our heads with more wildlife knowledge.
We slowly walked by being careful not to disturb this typically docile beast but he hammed it up to put on a bit of a show for us.
Yellowed-Eyed Penguins on the Otago Peninsula Penguins:
When we reached the penguin-viewing hideout, we spotted a few yellow-eyed penguins up in the bush on the mountainside.
My stereotypical vision of penguins is picturing them on ice or at least a cold beach, so it was slightly odd to see them up on a mountainside amongst the bushes. But we soon learned that the yellow-eyed penguins are actually forest dwelling birds. We watched one of the resident Otago Peninsula penguins carefully waddle its way right up the steep gradient!
About 9 years ago Elm Wildlife Tours began a conservation project to restore this portion of the coast to its natural environment, which provides this endangered species a habitat to live and breed. Their efforts appear to be working too as the penguin population in this area seems to be growing. They estimate there are about 70 yellow-eyed penguins now living directly in this particular area.
As we begun to leave, a few more yellow-eyed penguins made their way out of the ocean and pushed passed the flock of gulls to begin their ascent of the hillside, hopefully with some full bellies from their time in the ocean.
After marveling at the penguins and their climbing efforts, we made our way back past the big sea lion and up the path we came on. To our surprise we saw a few more of these elusive yellow-eyed penguins who had snuck up the path while we were at the hideout. This time they were really close! One was just off the trail.
We looked right at each other and this normally shy penguin didn’t seem startled or bothered at all. It was such a neat experience to share this moment with these most rare penguins. Beautiful!
Finding Fur Seals on Otago Peninsula
After making our way back up the hill we swapped places with Shaun’s group to take a gander at the seal colony.
There were hundreds of them! The adult fur seals seemed to be resting on the rocks as their pups were frolicking around with lots more energy. The pups splashed in the tidal pools, looking like little puppy dogs. We could have sat there and watched them play all day.
To top things off, we got one last visit from an albatross to bid us farewell as he soared above the playful pups!
A Day of Wildlife Viewing on the Otago Peninsula
As the sun had set behind our backs and night took over, our Otago Peninsula wildlife tour had come to an end leaving us with musings of wonderment during our many encounters with the rare and extraordinary animals in this unique New Zealand ecosystem.
If You Go Search for Wildlife on the Otago Peninsula:
Elm Wildlife Tours provides their “Encounter Tour” of the Otago Peninsula daily, with pick-ups from your location at a designated time in the afternoon, pending the time of year. The cost of the tour starts at $97 NZD (about $73 USD at current conversion rates), which covers transportation and the entire 5-6.5 hours tour itself.
We would definitely recommend Elm Wildlife Tours and provide them a great review. The tour itself went off without a hitch, was extremely informative, and they really do know where to find wildlife on the Otago Peninsula. We love their socially responsible efforts and the conservation work they do to aid the yellow-eyed penguins’ natural habitat. But don’t just take our word for it. Its rare to see such lopsided rave reviews on Tripadvisor.
Being short on time and wanting to be certain to find the wildlife that the Otago Peninsula is known for, we found this to be our best option and it did not disappoint. As with any wildlife tour, viewing is not always guaranteed but it seemed like the chances are pretty good with Elm Wildlife Tours.
The tour runs into the night, arriving back to Dunedin after dinner hour (return time depends time of year), so it is wise to pack a meal or snack to eat while in the minivan. There are plenty of supermarkets and takeaway options throughout Dunedin to grab something in advance. Alternatively there is a café with takeaway at the Royal Albatross Centre.
Be sure to check the weather and dress accordingly. It can get quite cold, particularly when standing/sitting still outside during wildlife viewing. Be sure to have warm clothes.
Wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to walk up and down a sloped track. Watch out for sheep poop!
Binoculars were provided so no need to bring your own. But don’t forget to have your camera fully charged with lots of space on your memory card. You’ll probably want to take lots of pictures of whatever animal friends you may stumble across!