The 7 top places to watch whales and dolphins in New Zealand

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Visitors to New Zealand are often amazed how easy it is for them to get close up to whales and dolphins in the coastal seas and fiords that are their home. 

The South Island is the best place to see whales and dolphins with the help of expert guides and tourism operators who specialise in marine experiences.

Top choices

Kaikoura, South Island

Whale Watch Kaikoura

The Whaleway Station Whaleway Road, Kaikoura

Whale Watch is owned and operated by the indigenous Ngāti Kuri people of Kaikoura, a Maori sub-tribe of the South Island’s larger Ngāi Tahu Tribe.

Established in 1987 when national unemployment was threatening the South Island community of Kaikoura, the business has built a fleet of catamarans with engines that minimise noise so they can get close to sperm whales. They use sophisticated listening devices to find whales more than 5kms away.

Kaikoura is the only place in New Zealand you can see giant sperm whales, and you can see them all year.

It has won numerous national and international awards including a Pacific Asia Travel Association Gold Award in its Environment and Eco-tourism category (2011), an Australasian Responsible Tourism Award at the 2014 Asia & Australasia World Travel awards and the 2016 Award of Excellence for Travel/Tourism websites at the Communicator Awards.

Whale Watch has Qualmark Enviro-Gold status for exceptional standards of responsible tourism.

After the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake, Whale Watch were forced to restrict some of their operations, timing tours to coincide with tidal conditions while repairs to the coastline were made.

Akaroa, South Island

Akaroa Dolphins 

65 Beach Rd, Akaroa

This is a family-owned business cruises its catamaran across Akaroa Harbour, home to the smallest and arrests dolphins in the world, known as the Hector’s dolphin.

Akaroa Dolphins’ harbour cruise was judged to be the Best Dolphin Watching Experience in New Zealand at the 2013 Rankers Awards, beating 19 other operators in the category.

Next best (not in order)

Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, North Island

Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari

New Zealand Maritime Museum, 175 Quay Street, Viaduct Harbour, Auckland

Their boat holds 100 passengers and their 4.5 hour eco-cruise to the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park leaves daily from Auckland’s waterfront.

You may see up to five different species on your cruise (see none and you get a free return cruise), including Orca whales, Bryne’s whales and the common dolphin.

The operator has been awarded TripAdvisor Certificates of Excellence from 2013 to 2016.

Bay of Islands. North Island

Plenty of operators run cruises out of Paihia and there are plenty of opportunities to see the common dolphin and the bottlenose dolphin. You might even get the chance to swim with the dolphins. One of the most popular local tours is out to Hole in the Rock. Occasionally, you might spot a killer whale.

Marlborough Sounds, South Island

Plenty of dolphins in these waters at the northern tip of the South Island. You can easily see many species including orca, dusky, common, bottlenose and even the rare Hector’s dolphin. You can take your chances paddling a kayak or look for a local dolphin tour.

Fiordland, South Island

Cruises on Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound usually attract a few bottlenose dolphins in the wake, allowing passengers to get plenty of photographs. Forget the idea of going swimming with these dolphins – the depth of the fiords means the water is freezing.

Tauranga/Mt Maunganui, North Island

Though this area has a lower profile than others for eco-tourism, there are tour companies who specialise in find dolphins and even the odd killer whale on the Bay of Plenty coast. Pods of orca often swim into Tauranga Harbour.