Best New Zealand Wildlife Photography Spots

With many of the world’s rarest species, New Zealand is a wildlife haven with incredible spots for wildlife photography. The famous native national bird of New Zealand, the elusive Kiwi, would be at the top of many people’s lists to find and capture.

Yet, this remarkable country is home to a plethora of other rare and endangered animals that you should keep an eye out for when visiting.

However, because these wildlife species are scarce, it is critical that you do not get too close and always follow the rules in these locations to protect these species for the generations to come. 

At a glance: (click to jump)

  1. Arthurs Pass – Kea
  2. Kaikoura – Sperm Whales, Dolphins, Seals & Crayfish
  3. Stewart Island – Kiwi
  4. Catlins – Hector’s Dolphins, Sea Lions & Yellow Eyed Penguins
  5. Tiritiri Matangi Island – Kokako, Saddleback & Takahe
  6. Muriwai – Gannet Colony 
  7. Cape Kidnappers – the world’s biggest colony of mainland gannets!
  8. Kapiti Island – Little Spotted Kiwi
  9. Oamaru – Little Blue Penguin
  10. Milford Sound – Fiordland Crested Penguin, Blue Duck & Bottlenose Dolphin

Having previously worked for the Department of Conservation (DOC), I know the organisation works tirelessly to educate locals and tourists of how to behave around New Zealand’s special wildlife.

DOC has excellent signage in most locations of interest around the country which gives you vital information on how close is too close.

I always try my best to be a responsible wildlife photographer and set an example for others to follow.

Before we get into the top photography spots for wildlife photographers in New Zealand, you need to know exactly what photography equipment you will need to bring with you to get wildlife photos of which you are proud to share.

New Zealand wildlife photography recommendations: 

  • A DSLR or Mirrorless Camera with a telephoto lens of at least 400mm, this should give you enough reach but having a compatible extender/teleconverter would be a bonus
  • A sturdy tripod
  • Camera bag with enough space for your long lens
  • Long lens rain cover, it is not uncommon to have four seasons in one day in NZ, so it is always best to be prepared for every scenario!
  • Headlamp, especially if you are wanting to hunt out the Kiwi, they are after all nocturnal…
  • Binoculars

Now you know what to pack, here are the best photography spots for wildlife photographers in New Zealand!

Let’s go!

Ⓒ Sean Michael Pritchard

1. Arthurs Pass – Kea

The world’s only alpine parrot, the Kea, can often be spotted in Arthurs Pass village after dusk.

The best place to spot them, however, is at the Otira Viaduct Lookout just a few kilometers north of the village. This truly is one of the best New Zealand wildlife photography spots!

You will hear the Kea’s distinct call before they appear. These are highly intelligent birds and will often come up close to your camera which makes for great opportunities to get close photography shots of these magnificent native birds in New Zealand.

Be careful though, as they are cheeky and will steal or try to damage your camera equipment if you let them.

If you are lucky enough to capture the kea in flight, you might get a glimpse of the parrot’s colourful feathers underneath their wings, arguably the ultimate wildlife photo to capture in New Zealand!

Please do not feed the Kea to try to get a photo, human food is very harmful to this endangered species and encourages pest like behaviour.

Where to stay in Arthurs Pass:

Only 7 kilometres from Arthur’s Pass, Rata lodge is a wonderful affordable alternative with both dormitory and private rooms available.

Hotel Bealey is a 7-minute drive from Arthur’s Pass Village and boasts spectacular views of the mountains, river, and valley. It has a restaurant, barbeque facilities, and free parking.

The newly opened Grasmere Lodge in Cass, a short drive from Arthurs Pass, includes an outdoor swimming pool, free private parking, a fitness centre, and a garden. This resort has immaculate rooms as well as a terrace for visitors. A patio with a lake view is available in some of the property’s rooms.

nz fur seal sleeping photography
Ⓒ Sean Michael Pritchard

2. Kaikoura – Sperm Whales, Dolphins, Seals & Crayfish

Kaikoura is home to some of New Zealand’s best wildlife photography spots! For a wildlife photographer the opportunities in Kaikoura are abundant.

From New Zealand fur Seals playing on the coastal rocks, to the sperm whales diving out to sea, and multiple dolphin species playing in the bays.

The name Kaikoura translates from Māori to food (Kai) lobster (koura) so a special experience for many is to take a fishing tour and get up close and personal with the local crayfish.

However. if you venture further out to experience deep sea fishing you could be lucky enough to catch a Grouper weighing up to 40kgs, a real thrill to catch and photograph!

If you’re a bird photographer, you won’t want to miss the opportunity to go on the Albatross Encounter tour.

The coast of Kaikoura is home to a wide variety of seabirds, including five species of great albatross!

Don’t forget to check out the great surf photography spots whilst in the Kaikoura area!

Where to stay in Kaikoura:

A variety of cabins and self-contained units to choose from. The beach is within a 2-minute walk away and it’s only 5 minutes’ walk from Whale Watch Kaikoura. The park has a heated swimming pool, spa pool, and covered BBQ area.

Located in Kaikoura, offers self-catering rooms with a balcony overlooking the majestic mountains. There is also a garden and free private parking for guests.

This luxurious lodging choice, situated between the mountains and the sea, offers breathtaking views of Kaikoura and the Pacific Ocean. All Hapuku Lodge and Tree House accommodations include a 2-person spa bath, a fireplace, and a balcony. The treehouse accommodations are lifted 10 yards into the trees.

two kiwi birds native national animal of new zealand
Steven dosRemedios

3. Stewart Island – Kiwi

For those just reading this blog to find the best place to photograph the national animal of New Zealand, the Kiwi, this one’s for you.

Many people that visit New Zealand will only make it to the North & South Islands, few venture to Stewart Island, but it is well worth the short ferry ride just south of Invercargill.

As Kiwi’s are nocturnal, you’ll need to plan at least an overnight trip to make it worthwhile. Although, if you are lucky, the Southern Brown Kiwi (Rakiura Tokoeka), may often be observed grazing amid the grasses and seaweed during the day and night here!

Real New Zealand are currently offering a Wild Kiwi Encounter tour and have a Kiwi guarantee, if you don’t see a native Kiwi bird, they will refund you 20% of your ticket fee. 

A must-do here is to take a short trip to the predator free bird sanctuary of Ulva Island, where you’ll discover not just Kiwi but an abundance of bird species to photograph.

Possible sightings include the South Island Kaka, South Island Saddleback (Tieke), Yellowhead (Mohoua), Morepork (Ruru), New Zealand White-capped Albatross and the Fiordland Crested Penguin.

Where to stay in Stewart Island:

The renowned South Sea Hotel on Stewart Island is located on the waterfront in the heart of town. The self contained studio apartments are located next to the main hotel structure. The older-style accommodation upstairs in the main hotel have common facilities such as a communal guest lounge with a view of the bay.

The Bay Motel on Stewart Island has magnificent views of the Tasman Sea and overlooks Halfmoon Bay. It has a neighbouring golf course, a free shuttle service, and on-site free private parking.

Kaka Retreat Motel on Stewart Island is nestled among calm native bushland and provides spacious contemporary apartments with a private balcony or patio.

sean pritchard sea lion photography
Ⓒ Sean Michael Pritchard

4. Catlins – Hector’s Dolphins, Sea Lions & Yellow Eyed Penguins

The Catlins is one of my favourite photography regions in New Zealand for its raw and rugged beauty, and it helps that the wildlife spots here are some of NZ’s best!

A highlight is that one of the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin species can be frequently spotted in Porpoise Bay during the summer. Hector’s dolphins can regularly be seen playing in the surf, and usually come to shelter here in the hot New Zealand summer to bring up their young. 

Just around the corner is Curio Bay, where Yellow Eyed Penguins come to shore at dusk. The beach is usually closed off as these species are endangered, but you can view and photograph from the viewing decks above.

Another spot in the Catlins where the Yellow-Eyed Penguin can be spotted is Roaring Bay, Kaka Point. I’d recommend this location, over Curio Bay, as the hide is closer and a better angle for wildlife photography. 

New Zealand fur seals and sea lions also frequent this stretch of shoreline. Waipapa Point Lighthouse, where sea lions frequently snooze, is a favourite location for wildlife photographers.

Where to stay in the Catlins:

Surat Bay, a large sand beach in Newhaven where you could view a Hooker Sea Lion, is a 5-minute walk away for guests staying at Catlins Newhaven Holiday Park. Bungalows with shared bathrooms and private chalets with ensuites are the two options for accommodation.

The beach is within a 2-minute walk away. Seascape Accommodations provides three contemporary apartments, each with quality furniture and views of the Nugget Point Lighthouse across the ocean.

The Salty Bushman B&B offers beachfront lodgings with a communal lounge and barbeque amenities at Kaka Point, only a few steps from the beach. Previous visitors have given the bed & breakfast outstanding reviews.

nz takahe native wildlife bird
5. Tiritiri Matangi Island – Kokako, Saddleback & Takahe

Tiritiri Matangi Island is an open wildlife sanctuary in the Hauraki Gulf and known as one of the most successful community and government-led conservation projects in the world.

A wildlife photography gem waiting to be explored, just a short ferry excursion from downtown Auckland.

Being only 30km from the coast, it is potentially the most accessible open wildlife sanctuary in New Zealand for photographers!

The attraction here is the presence of Kakako, Saddleback, and Takahe populations that are not easily seen elsewhere in the Auckland region.

When the sun goes down, it is also possible to spot the little spotted Kiwi and little blue penguin. Make sure you have your camera at the ready!

 Where to stay for Tiritiri Matangi Island:

Overnight shared accommodation is available on Tiritiri Matangi in the former lighthouse keeper’s cottage and can be booked online on the DOC website.

If you would prefer not to share, I would recommend staying in Auckland CBD and catching a ferry across for a daytrip. Auckland CBD accommodation options: 

Centrally located in the CBD, just a 10 minute stroll from Aotea Square with options of both private and dormitory rooms. Dormitory rooms have shared bathroom facilities whereas private rooms offer a flat-screen TV and private bathroom.

Located in the heart of Auckland, just a short stroll to the viaduct harbour. Studios are immaculately decorated and come with a well equipped kitchenette.

This chic boutique hotel is directly located in Auckland’s CBD, only steps from the Viaduct Harbour and the Sky Tower. Each room is unique and contains New Zealand art and photography. The bathroom comes with complimentary EcoStore toiletries. The Housebar serves cocktails as well as local beers and wines.

flock of wild gannets birds on the ground
6. Muriwai – Gannet Colony 

Roughly an hour’s drive from Auckland CBD, Muriwai beach on the wild West Coast of New Zealand is home to about 1200 pairs of gannets.

Every year from August to March, the gannet colony returns to this location to nest. If you plan your visit during December, you will be lucky to witness them raising their chicks.

The viewing platforms offer excellent vantage points and let you get close to capture these magnificent birds, making this easily one of the best New Zealand wildlife photography spots!

A strong telephoto lens with at least 400mm reach will allow you to capture incredible detail of the gannets as they dive into the water in quest of fish to feed their young.

Also look out for white fronted terns, little blue penguins, seals and the māui dolphin, New Zealand’s rarest dolphin with only about 54 individuals remaining in the world! 

Where to stay in Muriwai:

Parakai Geothermal Motel, located 10 km from Muriwai, offers rooms with a private bathroom and a balcony with a garden view. Guests are welcome to relax in the hot tub.

This resort features lake views, free WiFi, and free private parking and is located directly in Muriwai. The rooms have just been updated. There is a patio at the lodge. and visitors are invited to play tennis on-site.

Waitakere Resort & Spa is 10 miles from Muriwai and is set in tranquil surroundings with native rainforest views. It offers panoramic views of the lush woodland and native flora, as well as Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf.

gannets kissing wildlife potography
7. Cape Kidnappers – the world’s biggest colony of mainland gannets!

If you enjoy Muriwai Gannet Colony, you should also consider visiting Cape Kidnappers Gannet Colony. East of Hastings in Hawke’s Bay is the spectacular sandstone headland known as Cape Kidnappers.

Interesting fact: Captain Cook called the area Cape Kidnappers when a native Māori attempted to capture one of his men.

It is a big attraction for the local region, with approximately 20,000 wild Gannets nesting here each year and known to be the largest mainland gannet colony in the world.

The 13-hectare privately owned reserve includes both the Saddle and Black Reef gannet colonies. It is best to take a guided excursion with Gannet Safaris Overland Tours or Gannet Beach Adventures.

Where to stay in Cape Kidnappers:

The Whare Rural Retreat is located on a Berry Farm in Hastings and is surrounded by beautiful gardens and a duck pond. The Twin room is ideal for budget travellers, but it is worth noting the bathroom and kitchen are located in a caravan adjacent to the bedroom.

In the heart of Havelock North Village, the Havelock North Motor Lodge offers contemporary, large rooms. Every day, a range of cooked and continental breakfast options are offered, and the hosts are glad to help with activities and directions.

The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, located on 6,000 acres of gorgeous pastures in Hawke’s Bay, boasts 180-degree ocean views, a wine cellar with a tasting area, open fires, and an infinity pool with a hot tub. Guests receive complimentary pre-dinner beverages and hors d’oeuvres, a gourmet meal, a full breakfast, and an in-room mini-bar stocked with domestic beer exclusively.

native new zealand kiwi bird wildlife sign
8. Kapiti Island – Little Spotted Kiwi

Kapiti Island is one of New Zealand’s most accessible wildlife nature reserves!

Located around 5km off the west coast of the southern North Island, approximately one hour north of Wellington, this is a top wildlife photography spot!

Kapiti Island is fortunate as a world-renowned bird sanctuary with a multitude of native New Zealand birds and endangered species.

A consequence of years of conservation work, it’s a one-of-a-kind tourist and photography experience in a predator-free haven.

Only authorised tour providers have access. Stay the night and you’ll get the opportunity to photograph a Little Spotted Kiwi.

 Where to stay for Kapiti Island:

Overnight accommodation is available through Kapiti Island Nature Tours with ensuites, cabins and glamping options available.

Otherwise, if you opt for a popular day tour you should stay in nearby Paraparaumu:

Atarau Grove Studio, located in Paraparaumu in the Wellington district, features a garden for guests to explore. The studio is spotless and well-equipped.

The beach is within a 2-minute walk away. Seascape Bed & Breakfast offers garden views as well as a sun patio. Every day, guests at the bed & breakfast may enjoy a delicious continental breakfast.

The luxury queen room is a cosy little sanctuary with fantastic views and amenities. The property is situated in beautiful gardens and is roomy and pleasant. Large glass windows and doors lead to a protected deck with views of trees, ponds, birds, and the mountains.

underwater photo of wild little blue penguin
9. Oamaru – Little Blue Penguin

Oamaru, New Zealand is home to a natural colony of the world’s tiniest penguin, which may be seen from as close as 10 to 15 metres away at the Blue Penguin Colony.

This is a popular wildlife watching spot!

The grandstand at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony can accommodate up to 350 people, so arrive early to grab front row seats for the greatest view.

However, photography is not permitted within the Little Blue Penguin colony.

While the colony is where the majority of the Blue Penguins arrive back to shore, many little Blue Penguins nest across the town, and it is not uncommon to come across a penguin while walking around this beautiful New Zealand town.

Walking around the town at dusk can provide fantastic wildlife photography possibilities, but please keep your distance, DO NOT use flash photography and don’t frighten them away!

Where to stay in Oamaru:

Oamaru TOP 10 Holiday Park is located 5 minutes’ drive from Oamaru town centre and features a covered BBQ area, bicycle rental facility, and tour desk. There are rooms with both private and shared bathrooms available.

Each room is designed and decorated uniquely with its own charm and style. The hotel also has a communal lounge and is located in the heart of Oamaru.

In this ancient Oamaru stone home, you will enjoy a deluxe bed and breakfast experience. Casa Nova is the district’s earliest stone residence, completed in 1861, and is now available for guests to enjoy with tastefully fitted rooms, sea views, and secluded settings.

new zealand wild dolphins
Ⓒ Sean Michael Pritchard
10. Milford Sound – Fiordland Crested Penguin, Blue Duck & Bottlenose Dolphin

Milford Sound comprises some of the most interesting and distinctive biodiversity, making it an essential spot for wildlife photography in New Zealand.

The first species of note is the Fiordland Crested Penguin, with its vivid orange beak and blonde feathers on either side of its eyes, this penguin is utterly unique.

They return to the same beach in Milford Sound every year to mate and lay eggs in August. The baby penguins will become self-sufficient in November or December.

More than 60 bottlenose dolphins also inhabit the vicinity of Milford Sound, it’s not unusual to witness them surfing the bow wave of cruise ships touring New Zealand or greeting groups of kayakers.

Dusky dolphins can also be seen on occasion in the fiord.

Yet, these dolphins are much smaller than resident bottlenose dolphins. Although, they are only occasional visitors, if you’re extremely lucky, you might even get to spot a whale in Milford Sound.

The last species to mention, is the extremely scarce Blue Duck, also known as ‘whio’ in Māori. This species dwells in Fiordland National Park’s natural woodlands.

They prefer fast-flowing rivers and can sometimes be spotted around the Eglinton Valley and Monkey Creek on the Milford road.

It is well worth a pitstop to see if you can capture one of these endangered species on your way back from Milford Sound.

Where to stay in Milford Sound:

Alternatively, you could stay in nearby Te Anau which has a lot more options:

Amber Court Motel has modern accommodation in a peaceful setting, just 2 minutes’ walk from the lake and a 10-minute walk from Te Anau’s shops and eateries.

Lakefront Lodge provides self-contained apartments on the shores of Lake Te Anau. All of the units are soundproofed and on the ground floor.

Fiordland Lodge in New Zealand is located within a World Heritage Site and offers views of Lake Te Anau and the surrounding peaks. Fiordland’s spacious accommodations include private balconies and excellent bathrooms.

Bonus location: Watch the birds and insects thrive in Lake Tekapo during lupin season!

Final thoughts

New Zealand truly has some of the best wildlife photography spots in the world! It’s an absolute haven for wildlife photographers.

In addition to the country’s stunning natural settings, wildlife photographers are treated to a wide variety of close encounters from some of the world’s rarest and endangered species.

From unique native bird species, endangered dolphins, enormous whales, adorable seals, cute blue penguins and epic sea lions, there is an adventure for every wildlife photographer in New Zealand.

Whether you’re a professional wildlife photographer or someone who simply enjoys photographing animals in nature, you won’t go home disappointed!

I hope you have a chance to visit some, if not all, of these bird and wildlife photography spots whilst travelling New Zealand!

DISCLOSURE: I may earn a small commission from some of the links above. For the benefit of the doubt, please assume all links might be affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

close up shot of a kea bird

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