Penguins, dolphins and a petrified forest.

We are on the south coast of the South Island of New Zealand, about three hours drive from Queenstown. This is about as close to Antarctica as NZ gets. Only sparsely populated Stewart Island is closer. Our holiday cabin, one of an isolated group strung out along the beach at Porpoise Bay, just around the headland from Curio Bay, has 180 degree views of the Southern Ocean. We have no internet, mobile phone coverage or television. What we do have is penguins, dolphins, seals, a petrified forest and, much to David’s irritation, sand flies.

The tourist brochures promise fairy penguins nesting in the front garden, dolphins frolicking in the water and seals and sea lions basking on the beach.  Anyone who has followed my blog will know that I am a pushover for promises of wildlife.

The bay has a pod of dolphins. The name Porpoise Bay harks back to a time when porpoises and dolphins were thought to be the same.  Sitting on the terrace in the early evening, getting bitten by sand flies, we see them playing in the waves. They are Hector’s Dolphins, one of the rarest species in the world. Earlier today we watched them from the headland. A group of hardy souls from the local campground have been swimming with them. It sounds like fun but I have no desire to test the temperature of the sea.  Perfect weather here is a day without rain. Summer, in the sense that we know it, doesn’t exist. 

Around the next headland at Curio Bay, there is a rock shelf with a beautifully preserved petrified forest. At low tide we see Jurassic Era tree fossils, undisturbed where they fell in a volcanic cataclysm millions of years ago. On summer evenings a small group of Yellow-Eyed Penguins parade across the shelf on their way home to burrows in the surrounding bushland. The sign says the penguins will come ashore between 7 and 10 pm. David is reluctant to spend the evening adding to his now impressive collection of sand fly bites and suggests we arrive around 8.30 pm. I’m ready to go by 6.30. By 7.15 he realises he will get no peace until I see a penguin and we take up our positions at the lookout.

We amuse ourselves for the next few hours chatting to a young English couple on a 
backpacking tour of the world. Like me Linda is keen to see the penguins and, while we talk, we keep our gazes glued to where the sea meets the rock shelf below. The men find mutual interests in cricket and football. It is clear neither of them are remotely interested in penguins. The chance to while away the time discussing sport is a definite bonus.

After a couple of hours the first penguin appears. Although he is about 50 metres away it is still light enough to see him. I share my binoculars with Linda. The guys look up briefly before going back to their dissection of the upcoming football world cup. Soon another penguin and then another emerges from the water onto the rocks directly below us. In all we see six or seven but only two come close enough to see clearly. Luckily these two don’t seem to be in any hurry to get home. They preen, strut and put on little displays of swimming and jumping.  About an hour or so later when they finally disappear into the bushes the men are pathetically grateful their ordeal is over.

Fairy Penguins and sea-lions:

We never see the promised fairy penguins nesting in our garden despite conducting a couple of late night vigils watching for them. They are supposed to come in after dark, much later than the Yellow-Eyed Penguins. We do however find a couple of sea-lions.  We are investigating an historic lighthouse at Waipapa Point when we are rewarded with the sight of two of the giant, blubberous creatures basking in the late afternoon sun. 

Waterfalls, caves and the southern most point: 

Curio Bay is not just about wildlife.  The Southern Scenic Route runs right along the south coast. There are walks, waterfalls, caves and best of all Slope Point, the southern most point on the South Island. With nothing there except a sign to mark the spot and never-ending prevailing winds, it is a great place to feel the isolation of this part of the world.

If you really want penguins the best place in the world  to seem them is King Island, in Bass Strait. At the right time of year hundreds march up the beach and there is hardly another person around.

If you can’t make it to King, the penguin parade at Phillip Island is worth the cost.  It’s a bit commercial and processed but still a great place to see them.

If you want to see Yellow-Eyed Penguins in New Zealand, the Penguin Place on the Otago Peninsular has a good tour.


  1. We saw penguins in Galapagos. Check it out -

    1. I am a penguin addict. I search them out wherever we go.