Whale watching in New Zealand

Making a splash! New Zealand whale watching

Though more known for the little bird that gave New Zealand natives their nickname – the Kiwi -  New Zealand is also one of the best places in the world to see a giant from a different part of the animal kingdom altogether; whales.

Seeing a whale up close is a truly profound experience and something many have on their bucket list, which makes a trip to New Zealand even more worth it! New Zealand is lucky enough to not only boast multiple spots where you can see these majestic masters of the ocean, but multiple species pass through the country's shores year-round.


A South Island town in the Canterbury region where mountain meets the sea, Kaikoura has been dubbed 'the whale watching capital of New Zealand'. It's one of the only places in the world you can easily catch sight of the Giant Sperm Whale, the world's largest toothed predator, all year round.

More about Giant Sperm Whales

Equivalent in size to four elephants, a Giant Sperm Whale's tooth can weigh more than a kilogram each and could grow to over 20cm long. You'll want to hop on over to Kaikoura where you can see these on guided boat tours or on a personal plane tour.

Depending on what time of year you visit, you might also get to see orcas, travelling humpbacks, blue whales, fur seals and dolphins.

Hauraki Gulf Marine Park

Part of the Pacific Ocean, Auckland's Hauraki Gulf covers an area of 4000 square kilometres and is a haven for whale watchers and other marine life fans. Over 22 species of whale have been spotted here, including the endangered Bryde's whales. Plus expect to see plenty of different exotic marine life, including bottlenose dolphins.

More about Bryde's whales

  • It's actually pronounced 'broo-dess' and the name is taken from Johan Bryde, who helped build South Africa's first whaling factory in 1909.
  • Sometimes known as the 'tropical whale', this species could also be thought of as the Marilyn Monroe of the marine kingdom because, like Marilyn, some like it hot. This is the only one that stays in warm waters over 16 degrees year-round.

Whakatane, Bay of Plenty

Not only can you potentially see minke whales and pilot whales from the Whakatane shore on a good day, if you take a tour from the town towards White Island and the suitably named Whale Island, you can expect to get up close and personal with a range of dolphins and whales. This is a popular spot for diving too, if you're a thrill seeker!

Bay of Islands

Bay of Island boat tours may not be marketed specifically as whale watching tours, but taking a trip to the Hole in the Rock or other areas of interest around the Bay is sure to come with a whale sighting or two. You can also get yourself a kayak or boat and head out on the picturesque waters where you're more than likely to spot Orcas or blue whales (and if we're being honest, the views out in the bat are worth renting a kayak alone).

More about Orcas

  • Known as the 'killer whale', they're actually part of the dolphin family!
  • Highly intelligent, adaptable animals, the most common type of Orca is instantly recognisable for its black and white colouring. Though they can appear different based on where they live. 
  • Don't let the nickname fool you – they're generally very friendly animals, and there are no known cases of a 'killer whale' preying on a human.

Marlborough Sounds

Made up of sea-drowned valleys at the northern end of New Zealand's South Island, Marlborough Sounds sits along a migratory route so it's no surprise that you'll spot more than a few marine animals here. The area has something of a chequered past, having been a hub for the cruel act of whaling for many years. However, that's all a thing of the past now. The area welcomes you to book a tour to spot the likes of Orcas and Baleen whales from a safe, eco-friendly distance.

Whales in Māori Culture

When you catch sight of a whale you understand the sheer power and grace they possess, but whales have a deeper importance to New Zealand history and Māori culture.

They are descendants of Tangaroa, the God of the oceans, and so are thought to be sacred. For individual tribes, whales played an important part in their own mythology, with many believing a whale to be a sign that they were destined to settle in a specific area, or acting as guardian spirits when at sea.

A classic legend shared by the Maori people tells of their tribal ancestor, Paikea, being saved by a whale and brought to New Zealand.