The best wildlife on a NZ South Island road trip

seals on rock

Zoe Macfarlane

Posted April 06, 2022

In contrast to Australia’s formidable native animals, New Zealand’s critters are cute, quirky, unique, and harmless.

While both New Zealand’s islands have some serious wildlife pull, the South Island has a wealth of native animals to entice – both marine and land-based - making a South Island wildlife-inspired road trip not just a great idea, but a brilliant one.

The bonus? You only need to travel a fairly short distance to encounter a wealth of Kiwi animals, and RACV Members save on wildlife attractions and experiences along the way!

Best wildlife destinations on New Zealand's South Island

Ōtautahi Christchurch

Regular direct flights from Melbourne make Ōtautahi Christchurch a convenient hub for and South Island road trip, whether heading north, south, or inland.

In perhaps one of the fastest connections from the baggage carousel to wildlife spotting, Willowbank Wildlife Reserve is only ten minutes from Christchurch International Airport.

Willowbank is a family owned, New Zealand-themed wildlife park with an emphasis on conservation. The glass-free nocturnal house offers guaranteed opportunities to spot kiwi birds in a natural setting. You can also see Ruru, kākā, tuataras, and more. It’s the perfect introduction to the road trip ahead. 


People dolphin watching off boat in ocean

Akaroa, Canterbury. Credit: Graeme Murray.


Only 80 minutes from Christchurch, nestled in the Banks Peninsula, the former French settlement of Akaroa awaits. While the quaint heritage buildings, picture-perfect harbour, and stylish accommodation impresses, it’s the opportunity to site the rare Hector’s dolphins that wow on this road trip.

The world’s smallest and rarest, Hector’s dolphins enjoy shallow waters, so you’ll only see them in a handful of places off the coast of NZ. Nicknamed the ‘Mickey Mouse’ dolphin thanks to their ear-shaped fins and markings, Hector’s are a friendly bunch, making a dolphin-spotting cruise a lively adventure as they happily surf the boat’s wake.

While you’re in the Banks Peninsula, consider also visiting Australasia’s largest little penguin colony in Pōhatu Bay. Meet these boisterous birds on a 4WD tour or enjoy a sea kayaking adventure. For the ultimate wildlife stay, book a farmstay cabin and enjoy the same starry night sky as your 2,000+ new feathered friends.


Hector’s dolphins are not the only rare species that call this New Zealand region home: there’s also the yellow-eyed penguin. Distinct due to their yellow eyes and the yellow band of feathers across their eyes and chest, these endangered birds reside close to Oamaru, the steampunk capital of the world.

Around 3 or 4 pm, take a 45-minute stroll to Bushy Beach when the hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin) waddles back to shore after a day’s fishing. Try the Kaitiki Point Lighthouse, too.

Little penguins (also known as little blue penguins) call Oamaru home, too. Head to the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony at sunset for a prime viewing position and educational penguin commentary; your entry ticket goes towards penguin conversation. If you’re lucky, you may spot a handful of little penguins around Oamaru wharf. 


Kiwi bird in New Zealand

New Zealand's native Kiwi. Credit: Miles Holden. 

Ōtepoti Dunedin

Famed for its Scottish heritage and wealth of historic buildings, Ōtepoti Dunedin’s wildlife claim is as the home of the world’s only mainland breeding colony of northern royal albatross.

With a 3-metre wingspan, the majestic albatross demonstrate the worthiness of their title of 'monarchs of the sea’ by soaring up to 120 km per hour. If you’re fortunate enough to visit in January and February, the fluffy chicks are an adorable bonus to your albatross viewing experience.

The Royal Albatross Centre offers informative 60-minute toroa (albatross) viewing tours. Alternatively, go all-in with an in-depth 90-minute tour that explores the Fort Taiaroa hidden tunnel system that lies under the colony.

Also at Taiaroa Head, make time to visit the large fur seal colony, watch for sea lions, and receive an RACV Member discount on this Little Blue Penguins tour.


Nicknamed the Marine Serengeti, Kaikōura, some three hours north of Christchurch, has a wealth of wildlife to entice. Kaikōura is one of the most accessible places in the world to see sperm whales in the wild, along with humpbacks, orcas, several species of dolphins, seals, and sea lions.

While a whale-watching boat trip is an engaging and affordable way to see these titans of the deep, nothing beats spotting a whale overhead from a high-winged aircraft. Witnessing an 18m whale breach from the air is truly unforgettable.

Closer to shore, kayak, or swim to get up-close-and-personal with seals. To interact with the dusky, common, and Hector’s dolphins that ply these chilly waters, book an entertaining dolphin swimming tour.

Kaikōura is not all marine-focused: you can also randomly walk a llama on a woodland trek (one hour) or coastal tramp (four hours)! Forbes rated this quirky Kaikōura activity as one of the top ten places to see llama globally. 


Kea in Arthur’s Pass Village. Credit: Olivia Willoughby
Take a cruise and see some native wildlife in Kaikoura, Canterbury. Credit: Miles Holden

Arthur’s Pass

Instead of backtracking to Christchurch, why not loop inland through the Southern Alps? While not chock-full of native mammals, avian species are plentiful here. Visiting scenic Arthur’s Pass National Park almost guarantees a sighting of New Zealand’s cheekiest bird.

The bright green kea is known for its confidence around humans. The kind of confidence where your food is not safe, your possessions are fair game, and your windscreen wipers may be missing a chunk or two as you drive away.

Alongside enjoying the merriment of your cheeky kea encounter, the 29-hectare park also offers miles of beech forest, gushing waterfalls, and verdant native flora. Hike in summer or ski Temple Basin in winter.

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