Watching our marine life can be a rich and rewarding experience that helps children form a deep and personal connection to nature.
good marine-mammal watching behaviour
1 Always stay at least 10m from seals or penguins.
2 Do not disturb them or get in their way if they are on the move, as you may prevent a penguin returning to a hungry chick.
3 Keep dogs and small children clear. Seals have a nasty bite.
4 Don’t touch or handle seals or penguins, even if you think they look sick. Often they are just resting or moulting.
5 Drive carefully along any coast road, especially at dusk or dawn.
1 Motorboats: travel at idle or ‘no wake’ speed within 300m of any marine mammal.
2 Approach whales and dolphins from behind and to the side.
3 Do not circle them, get in their way or cut through any group.
4 Keep at least 50m from whales (or 200m from any large whale mother and calf).
where in the wild
New Zealand fur seals/kekeno are our most common seal, found on rocky shores around the mainland.
The largest seal ‘haulout’ near Wellington is at Turakirae Head Scientific Reserve, 20km south of Wainuiomata. Up to 500 (mostly young male fur seals) stay here each winter, an impressive sight! You can also see seals at Cape Palliser, 100km drive southeast of Wellington, and at Castlepoint on the Wairarapa coast.
Tauranga Bay Seal Colony Walk (20 minutes) at Cape Foulwind, is about 16km from Westport. There are platforms overlooking the seal colony and coastline.
Seals can be spotted at lots of pull-off points on State Highway 1, north of Kaikoura. But the must-do for families is the Ohau Stream Walk (10 minutes one way). During the winter, seal pups make their way up Ohau Stream to play in the pools and rapids below a small and pretty waterfall.
New Zealand sea lions are the rarest in the world, found along the Caitlin Coast. Surat Bay, near Owaka, has a short 20 minute walk to the beach, where a large colony of sea lions are often sleeping or playing.
Where the wild whales are!
New Zealand is the marine mammal capital of the world. Almost half the world’s whale and dolphin species are found here, some living all year round, some just passing by.
We have common, bottlenose and dusky dolphins, and the world’s smallest and rarest dolphins – Hector’s and Maui’s. Hectors often hang out in Akaroa Harbour, while Maui’s are only found on the west coast of the North Island.
Whales include the mighty sperm whales, humpback, southern right, pilot, orca, and Bryde’s whales.
Whale and dolphin-watching hot-spots are the Bay of Islands, Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf and Kaikoura. Tourism operators offer boat trips, but note that most might not take children under-5. Sea-sickness is something to be wary of with little ones, but don’t be put off – it can be a once in a lifetime experience. Seeing the world’s largest animals up close is thrilling! Don’t forget to just enjoy the ride as well, smelling and breathing in the fresh ocean air, observing seabirds and the amazing landscape.
Like seals, penguins divide their life between land and sea. Penguins are birds that fly through the water rather than the air.
Yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho (which means noise-shouter) are found along the south-east South Island. Several walks to viewing hides allow you to see hoiho without disturbing them as they come ashore in the early evening:
- Roaring Bay Track, Nugget Point, Caitlins (20 minutes return)
- Sandfly Bay, Otago Peninsula (1 hour return)
- Allans Beach, Otago Peninsula (5 minutes one way)
- Bushy Beach Track, Oamaru (10 minutes one way)
- Katiki Point, Moeraki Peninsula (20 minutes return)
A punk rocker among penguins, Fiordland crested penguin/tawaki are best spotted from July to November at Munro Beach, near Lake Moeraki, on the South Island’s West Coast.
Little blue penguin/korora are found all around New Zealand’s coastlines; one of the few coastal birds that live close to urban areas. But they are not often seen, as they live in underground burrows and mostly come ashore at night. Trusts and community groups in coastal areas have put out nesting boxes for little blues to make a home in. Tiritiri Matangi Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf allows visitors to see who is at home in their nesting boxes. Visit the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony between September and January; or take a guided evening trip with Pohatu Penguins on Banks Peninsula, Christchurch.
Mini marine worlds – rock pools
Mini marine worlds are created in the gaps when water remains behind long after the tide has retreated. Children love these mini worlds as it allows them to become the giants observing life in micro.
Anywhere on the coast where rocks are covered and then exposed at intervals by the changing tides are treasure troves of exploration. Crabs and hermit crabs, sea snails, sea anemones and bullies dart amongst the seaweed.
Hidden depths – snorkelling spots
NZ’s first marine reserve at Goat Island, Leigh (80km north of Auckland) is arguably the best place to introduce children to underwater life in its natural habitat. In summer, schools of kingfish, kahawai and jack mackerel flick by, spiny rock lobster are common, and rock pools are awesome to explore at low tide. Tour operators offer snorkelling, kayaking and glass-bottom boat trips.
Experiencing Marine Reserves (EMR) hold public snorkelling days over summer, at lots of places around the North Island. Gear and guides are supplied free. www.emr.org.nz.
marine life – in captivity
Kaikoura Marine Centre has a tank room featuring carpet sharks and crayfish, plus touch tank. www.marineaquarium.co.nz
Ecoworld in Picton displays a five-metre-long giant squid, rock pool touch tanks, turtles and seahorses. www.ecoworldnz.co.nz
National Aquarium/Te Whare Tangaroa O Aotearoa, in Napier has sharks, stingrays and living coral. www.nationalaquarium.co.nz
Kelly Tarlton’s Aquarium, Ohaku Bay, Auckland, has spiny sea dragons and New Zealand’s largest collection of sharks. www.kellytarltons.co.nz
Goat Island Marine Discovery Centre has displays and a tide pool tank near the marine reserve, north of Auckland. www.leighbythesea.co.nz
things you can do to help
1 Pick up rubbish on the beach.
2 Don’t pour chemicals or paint down drains as these all end up in the sea.
3 Take part in Marine-Metre Squared, a nationwide citizen science project. www.mm2.net.nz
4 Join a trust like Project Jonah and learn how to rescue stranded whales.
5 Do marine-inspired art or read books to learn more. National Whale Centre has a kids page. www.aworldwithwhales.com
6 Make a penguin nesting box.
7 Report sightings of rare animals such as Maui dolphin or Southern Right whales to the DOC hotline.
8 If you see an Orca, call 0800 SEE ORCA (0800 733 6722).
9 Report stranded or injured marine animals to the DOC HOTline 24 hour emergency number: 0800 DOCHOT (0800 362 468).
Sarah Mankelow has worked in conservation for over 15 years, and is the mother of two nature-loving children.