A Whale of a Time - New Zealand whale & dolphin watching


New Zealand is considered one of the cetacean (whales, dolphins and porpoises) watching hot-spots in the world. Given that at least 35 of the 80-odd different species can be found here, it is no wonder it has earned such a reputation.

A Whale of a Time

It is hard to say what it is about whales and dolphins that attract humans, but they certain have that ‘X’ factor. And if you have ever wanted to meet them in their own environment, here is your chance!

Sometimes whale watchers get lucky and catch a glimpse of the world’s largest animal – the blue whale. This whale is so large, its heart is the size of a Volkswagen ‘beetle’ car, and it’s tongue weighs the same as an elephant!


New Zealand also boasts the world’s largest dolphin – the orca, or killer whale, and one of the smallest – the Hector’s dolphin, found only around New Zealand. The orcas living around New Zealand have been found to be unique – they specialise in hunting for sharks and rays – and even speak their own recognisable dialect. The Hector’s dolphin is typically found in very close to shore and is considered one of the world’s rarest marine dolphins. It is so tiny you could hold one in your arms

New Zealand's curious Orca

Dolphins and Humpbacks

But there are other, more well-known species you can see, such as the humpback whale, (which migrates past New Zealand, on its way to and from Antarctica), the common dolphin (this is the dolphin which is depicted on Greek coins with a boy riding on it’s back), and the bottlenose dolphin (this is the same sort of dolphin as “Flipper”). The common dolphin is a beautiful dolphin, with a mustard coloured patch on its sides, and it often can be found in large groups. The bottlenose dolphin is usually found in close to the shore and tucked away in sheltered bays.

New Zealand has some of the Southern most bottlenose dolphins in the world, where they live in the fabled Fiords, such as Milford Sound. There is so much fresh water coming from the surrounding mountains that these dolphins spend a considerable amount of their lives swimming in fresh water, and in the winter have to break through ice surface to breath.

Bottle Nose Dolphin

Auckland's cetaceans filled harbours

Even Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, boasts its own populations of cetaceans. Within sight of the houses dotting the coastline, you can expect to see bottlenose or common dolphins and sometimes Bryde’s whales – a subtropical whale that has only recently been studied. It appears that these whales make this area of New Zealand their home, as they can be found there all year. They can often be seen feeding in association with common dolphins and gannets – a beautiful, sleek-looking bird that dives from a great height to catch its fish. The dolphins herd the fish up from below, creating a smorgasbord for the gannets and Bryde’s whales.

Bryde whale viewed from whale watching boat in Auckland

Kaikoura - the Serengeti of the Ocean

Off Kaikoura, a small village on the East coast of New Zealand you can see the dusky dolphin – considered one of the real acrobats of the sea. These dolphins often make leaps and jumps to boggle the mind and love to ride on the bow of the dolphin-watching boat. They hunt for squid at night, so during the day they come together in large groups and spend the day in close to the coast, where they sleep, socialise and play. You might also get lucky and see the Lissodelphis – a strange looking dolphin without a dorsal fin. These long, sleek dolphins are usually found well-offshore, but occasionally come to feed on the squid with the dusky dolphins. The abundance of food, swept to the surface by the cold ocean currents, brings a wide variety of marine-life to Kaikoura. This includes the mighty sperm whale – the largest of the toothed whales.

Sperm whales also feed on squid, but at all hours of the day, and usually go on dives for over an hour. When they return to the surface for air, it takes them a while to catch their breath. It is this time that we have a chance to see them, resting and blowing at the surface. Then it is a quick flick of their tail and off they go, down to the depths again, often to over 2 km deep! In the winter, the stunning backdrop of snowy Southern Alps, with a sperm whale tail, or a bunch of dolphins swimming past is an amazing sight and a photographic opportunity of a life-time

Kaikoura is also known as the sea-bird capital of the world, and a whale or dolphin watching trip also boasts views of giant albatross and tiny Pintado petrels, as well as New Zealand fur-seals. You can take helicopter trips to watch the birds, cetaceans and seals from the air, or if you wanted to meet dolphins in their own environment you could take a boat trip.

Kaikoura Whale Watching

Akaroa's Hectors Dolphin

If you really wanted to meet dolphins up close and personal, you could get wet and swim with them. New Zealand leads the world in swim-with-the-dolphin programs, taking you to meet wild, free dolphins, out in the open ocean. By doing it this way, the dolphins can make the choice to interact, and are not forced to. 

Hector’s dolphins are one of the world’s smallest dolphins. They are mostly found around the coast of New Zealand’s South Island. 

Populations of Hector’s dolphins are vulnerable to decline for several reasons:

  • Short lifespan: Hector’s dolphins may live until their mid-20s, which is short compared with other dolphins and whales.
  • Late maturity: females have their first calf (baby) at 5–9 years of age.
  • Low reproduction rate: females produce only one calf every 2–4 years.
Hectors Dolphins

Ready to Start Planning Your Marine Experience of New Zealand's Marvellous Coastline?

The options for exploring New Zealand are limitless. Check out our Nature Self Drive Tours  for ideas or get in touch with our travel specialists who will be happy to arrange a private guided tour with everything tailored exactly as you wish.


Brent Narbey
Brent Narbey
: 20 Nov 2010 (Last updated: 23 Mar 2022)

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