Dolphin and Whale encounters in New Zealand

Dolphin and whale encounters in New Zealand

Cetaceans are the stuff of legends. Whether we’re talking about dolphins boosting alongside boats and backward-somersaulting in play, or whales majestically breaching the surface before plunging into the depths to feed, these sleek, intelligent creatures have mesmerized people throughout history.

Dolphin and whale encounters in New Zealand

Encountering them in the wild on their own terms is an exhilarating experience and it’s no secret that New Zealand is a hotspot for whales and dolphins. Around half of the world’s approximately 80 species are found in New Zealand waters, and you can get up close and personal by boat, by plane – or, for the more adventurous, in the water with them. Marine encounters can form an unforgettable part of any self-drive New Zealand holiday – and there are plenty of chances throughout the country to slot them into your trip! Below, we’ve listed the best places to encounter whales and dolphins on a New Zealand self drive vacation.  

Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands with its sunny climate, warm sparkling waters and massive population of dolphins, is an ideal place to get on a cruise boat and even swim with dolphins. The short-beaked common dolphins with their beautiful white or tan flanks can be seen cruising and leaping here in their thousands, orca abound, and the Northland bottlenose dolphin also frolics in this area. During summer and autumn (January – April) the bottlenose prefers the outer waters of the Bay of Islands, but at other times they hug the shoreline, swimming even closer into shore than common dolphins. Passing whales include the blue, humpback, Bryde’s, sei and minke. Most dolphin and whale cruise boat tours leave from Paihia in the Bay of Islands. Paihia is just across the channel from New Zealand’s historic capital, Russell, well worth exploring before or after your dolphin and whale encounter.  

Bay of Islands dolphins playing

Abel Tasman National Park

At the northern tip of the South Island lies the Abel Tasman National Park. The headlands in this region are cloaked in verdant forest, its pristine beaches are lapped by turquoise sea, and to top it off this region gets the highest sunshine hours in the country – bliss! The Abel Tasman is well known for its 3-to-5-day walking track through forest and secluded inlets, but the surrounding sea itself is rich with marine life and can be explored by kayak, cruise boat, sailboat or water taxi. The dolphins generally seen here are short-beaked common dolphins. There are also fur seals residing on Pinnacle and Tonga Islands, which have cuteness factor through the roof with their long whiskers, pointy snouts and large eyes.

Tonga Island Fur Seals


Further south from Abel Tasman on the east coast of the South Island lies Kaikoura – home of fresh-caught crayfish by the roadside and Seafest, the annual food and wine festival. It is also perhaps New Zealand’s most famed cetacean viewing location. Here you can see sperm whales (the world’s largest toothed whale at more than 15m long) at any time of the year, humpbacks in June and July, and orca in the summer. There’s also a seal colony. It’s almost a guarantee that you’ll see dusky dolphins in Kaikoura on any given day – this species are renowned for their particularly exuberant and gravity-defying acrobatics, slipping expertly through the water in pods numbering anything from 100 to 1,000 members. The dolphins and whales all flock to Kaikoura’s unique underwater landscape, which provides them the perfect feeding environment. The continental shelf here plunges hundreds of metres down into underwater canyons, and it is also where two currents – warm and icy cold – meet. This collision results in an upwelling of nutrients and deep-sea species that provide food for many. The sperm whale alone eats around a ton of fish and squid every day! To get closer to dolphins and whales in Kaikoura, you can take a flight or a cruise boat – many boats offer swim-with-the-dolphins opportunities.

Kaikoura Whale Watching


After Kaikoura, continue driving south down the coast to picturesque Akaroa, where you can spot rare dolphins amidst the beauty of the Banks Peninsula. Akaroa itself is a historic French settlement, packed with funky art galleries, historic houses, and a myriad of cafes serving French-inspired cuisine. The harbour is the extinct crater of a volcano, with volcanic cliffs that jut up from the ocean. In this awe-inspiring setting, you can take a harbour cruise to spot the rare Hector’s dolphin, resident in the harbour’s marine mammal sanctuary. The Hector’s is the world’s smallest ocean-going dolphin and is found only in New Zealand. This tiny cetacean – only 50 kilos and 1.4 metres long – is also the rarest, and so having the opportunity to see and swim with them is a true privilege.

Hectors Dolphins Akaroa

Fiordland National Park

Heading to the south-western part of the country, the chilly waters of Fiordland National Park and the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site are home to marine mammals galore. High rainfall here means water gushes into the fiords, forming a top layer of freshwater 3-4m deep. The freshwater is stained a dark tea colour with tannins from forest leaf litter, and so it allows deep-sea marine life to flourish in relatively shallow water – rare red and black corals can be found at just 15m below the surface. The area itself is breath taking, with sheer cliffs looming skyward on all sides to take your breath away. Take a cruise boat into either Dusky or Doubtful Sound, or if you want to create a truly special adventure, getting there by helicopter over the towering peaks and plunging valleys is an excellent option. In these sounds you can spot the resident bottlenose dolphin populations – one of the southernmost locations in the world. Lighter grey than the dusky, the bottlenose males can grow up to four metres long, much longer than their relatives in the tropics. If you choose to drive through to the iconic Milford sound, take a cruise boat tour to see the dusky and Hector’s dolphins. The southern right whale is also an occasional sight on the Fiordland coast as it migrates past, and other whales have been spotted including the humpback, sperm, minke and even rarer species like Arnoux’s beaked whale. 

Fiordland Kayaking with dolphins

First Light Travel: are the New Zealand specialists – and we’re passionate about our nature and wildlife.

We can put together a self-drive itinerary tailored to your exact needs; incorporating plenty of encounters with our cheeky dolphins and orcas, so why not consider participating in one of the many dolphin and whale encounters in New Zealand. Get in touch today! 


Anne Baumscheiper
Anne Baumscheiper
: 20 Sep 2014 (Last updated: 23 Feb 2022)

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