Take it from someone who has survived the horror of booking an overseas "wildlife cruise", only to find themselves boarding a battered old dinghy and sludging 20m into a netted pen that was choked with marine mammals – you don't want that kind of guilt on your conscience.
Some would say the pamphlet was embellished. Most would say it told Pinocchio-sized lies.
Fortunately, in Aotearoa, we're blessed with both beautiful wildlife and a better moral code. There are plenty of sustainably-certified tours that get you close to NZ wildlife without disturbing it.
Unique gannet tours at Cape Kidnappers
Long known for its thriving gannet colony, between September and April, Cape Kidnappers is home to more than 20,000 great guzzling seabirds. To be honest, you'd have to be a fool to mess with a creature that boasts a 1.8m wingspan, a distinctive whiff and a posse as large as this. Visitors can, however, safely (and humanely) get within a few feet of the world's largest, most accessible mainland gannet colony with Gannet Beach Adventures. , Jump on the back of the trailer pulled by a vintage tractor for a unique guided tour along the beach to the colony. If your derriere isn't in the mood for a trundle, Gannet Safaris Overland offer a cushioned alternative on-board their air-conditioned minibus.
Ruggedy Range Wilderness Experience
Rakiura Stewart Island is a bird watcher's paradise and the good thing about a Ruggedy Range wilderness experience is that you needn't already know your tomtits from a takahē to appreciate the diversity. Beginners are as welcome as veteran ornithologists, with trips tailored to suit. Traversing both Stewart Island and Ulva Island, tours are small, guided and completed on foot. Get tantalisingly close to both rare and native birds, including the island's famously high concentration of wild kiwi. If you're keen to put your binoculars to extended use, there are also overnight hiking tours.
E-Ko Tours dolphin and wildlife cruise
Queen Charlotte Sound, Marlborough
If too many years of seeing your 90s' friends holidaying in Orlando waterparks has left you unsettled about dolphin encounters, worry not – NZ-based operators such as Marlborough's E-Ko Tours are both award-winning and certified responsible. Sail the calm, sheltered waters of Queen Charlotte Sound to Motuara Island Bird Sanctuary on a conservation-focused cruise, passing a playful gang of Hector's, common, bottlenose and dusky dolphins en route. With expert commentary and a one-hour exploration of the motu, by the end of this four-hour experience, your bouts of Free Willy-related anxiety will be gone.
Catlins Scenic and Wildlife Tours
We're a lucky bunch down here in Aotearoa - aside from the Galapagos variety, all known penguin species live south of the equator. With a handful of penguins such as the beady yellow-eye favouring our fair-weathered shores, a sunrise tour with Catlins Scenic and Wildlife Tours will put you in a good position to witness them preparing for a day at sea. Boasting a private location and a secluded bay, day-trippers are privy to an otherwise inaccessible penguin habitat, where you'll also come close to New Zealand fur seals and myriad sea birds.
Wairakei International Golf & Sanctuary
Jack Nicklaus eat your heart out, this golf course has been designed to include a 5km "Xcluder" fence encircling the entire perimeter. Rats, mice and weasels are yet to penetrate this Fort Knox-style barricade – much as they try. Within the boundary, an abundance of wildlife, native birds and keen golfers continue to thrive. In a world-first, this golfing green-cum-animal sanctuary boasts a dedicated kiwi incubation, hatching and brooding centre as well as a safe haven for breeding takahē, guinea fowl, pekin ducks and free-roaming deer. While digging your way out of the rough, keep your eyes peeled for the green's pair of resident kārearea (NZ falcon) and their burgeoning offspring.
Rotokare night tours at Rotokare Scenic Reserve
For as much as NZ's native wildlife is fascinating by day, those that take the night shift put on an equally good show. From seeing our very own nocturnal kiwi to bright-butted glow worms, a night tour with Rotokare Scenic Reserve is a must. Departing just after sundown, tiptoe in and around native forest and surrounding wetland to discover what lurks in the dark. With limited visibility, your ears will enjoy heightened sensitivity; honing in on squawking morepork and rustling kiwi snootling about on the forest floor. Once your eyes adjust, follow your guide to find scuttling wētā, glow-worm hidey-holes and silent eels making their way down the river incognito.
Ōamaru Blue Penguin Colony
Ōamaru North Otago
It's easy to understand why, way back in 1992, Ōamaru folk wanted to protect their little blue penguins, who stand at just 33cm. Albeit more robust than their small stature suggests, the world's smallest penguin has greatly prospered under the observation of Ōamaru Blue Penguin Colony. The centre has successfully - and steadily – increased penguin numbers via research, conservation and anti-predator measures. A visit to the colony allows for non-intrusive penguin viewing from a purpose-built grandstand. Come dusk, admire the penguins as they arrive home and waddle up the beach to their burrows. And if that doesn't make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, know this – tourism fully funds the colony's very own research programme.
Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne
The National Kiwi Hatchery
Who remembers the baby raptor hatching in the original Jurassic Park film? Because your experience at The National Kiwi Hatchery in Rotorua is a little like that – minus the threat of an irate T-Rex stomping about overhead. At Rainbow Springs Nature Park in Rotorua, this is the largest kiwi hatchery in the country, and a leader in egg incubation and chick-rearing. Visit the hatchery to see eggs being incubated, witness the hatching process and ahhh over newly hatched chicks. Your ticket directly contributes to the survival of kiwi. The vulnerability of newly hatched chicks in the wild make hatching facilities such as these crucial for survival.
Sea-kayaking safari with Pohatu Penguins
Can't get enough of those penguins that love to live with us in Aotearoa? In a windswept nook at the tip of Banks Peninsula lies Flea Bay, home to the largest little penguin colony on the mainland. In other words, a penguin-lovers dream destination.
Running tours of this wild and beautiful bay is Pohatu Penguins, a family-run business with a 30-year history of protecting the kororā. Sea kayaking tours give you a chance to see the penguins in their natural habitat, and encounter seals and Hector's dolphins as well. The tours help fund conservation and extensive predator control along the coastline, monitoring, and penguin rehabilitation. The dedication of Pohatu Penguins has created not only a stable penguin colony but an exceptional wildlife experience for visitors.
The Royal Albatross Centre
The Royal Albatross Centre in Dunedin is home to the world's only mainland breeding colony of northern royal albatross. These magnificent birds, with their 3m wingspan, are a sight to behold. They spend most of their lives at sea, roaming vast distances across the ocean, so seeing toroa on land is a special experience. As a not-for-profit charitable trust, a portion of your entry ticket to the Royal Albatross Centre goes directly to protecting toroa.
Muriwai Beach Horse Treks
On a Muriwai Beach Horse Trek, it's difficult to know what stands out the most: the animals, the scenery or the excellent guides. The staff certainly provide expert tuition and commentary but it's the likes of horses Lucy, Lotus and Ricky Baker that really show guests a good time. Pounding a picturesque route between the black-sand beach of Muriwai and Woodhill Forest, there's not a patch of this land that these gentle horses won't want to show you - including their favourite water holes for a quick splash about. With tours ranging between one and two hours, you needn't be a Dallas cowboy to have a good time; tours are suitable for the young, nervous and novice.
Island Sanctuary Tour Whakatāne
Bay of Plenty
The tour you can feel good about. Pay for your ticket, sound in the knowledge that part of your fee supports both the Department of Conservation's ongoing island preservation and the Whakatāne Coastguard. Accessed solely by an Island Sanctuary Tour, Moutohorā Island is a droplet of pure paradise, saturated in flora and fauna and just off the Whakatāne coast. This four-hour guided trip takes a maximum of 25 passengers - limiting your impact on the landscape - while encompassing a cruise, swimming at a hot-water beach and of course, close encounters with kiwi, kākāriki (New Zealand parakeets), bellbirds, tūī and a whole heap more, not least a rambunctious NZ fur seal colony.
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