The New Zealand waters have whale migration routes running straight through them, and many whale species are residents here, so it’s not that uncommon to spot a spectacular “whoosh” sprouting out of the deep simply by chance, when exploring the coast by boat or kayak.
Tourism brochures often highlight the tremendous displays you can see from sperm whales in Kaikoura, which is of course, well worth a visit in the South Island. But there are many other areas of coastline that provide an awesome opportunity to see other whale species. In fact, almost half of the world’s species of whale are seen around New Zealand’s coast.
For some lucky boaties or beach-goers, whales can often be seen frolicking and feeding in and around the Bay of Islands. And there are plenty of dolphin and whale watching tours to help you get up close and personal, for a crazy experience you won’t forget in a hurry.
Which whales are in the Bay of Islands?
Various species of whale are found in our tropical marine region year-round. There are resident pods to be spotted, and then other migratory whales that are stopping in on their epic journey across the Pacific, down to Antarctic waters.
Orcas, also known as killer whales (an unfortunate title!), are actually members of the dolphin family. They are iconic and easy to spot thanks to their black and white colouring – which also makes for excellent photos.
When the seemingly intimidating orcas hit town, dolphins seem to leave. Adult orca will eat more than just fish – sharks, rays, squid, birds and turtles are also on the menu.
Long-finned Pilot Whales
The long-finned pilot whale is also a member of the dolphin family and can be really social and curious, which is incredible if you’re out on the water.
Bryde’s (pronounced ‘brooders’) are baleen whales and have a bluish-grey body with white on the underside. They have two blowholes, like all baleen whales – a way to tell them apart from their dolphin friends above that also have teeth. A Bryde’s Whale might identify itself to you by a large cloud of vapour, and then roll on its side. This is how they like to feed – quite a sight if you’re lucky to spot this.
These big baleen beasts are easy to spot with their knobbly heads, long flippers, and short humped dorsal fins. If you’re lucky you will be able to see their famous, playful ‘breaching’ activity, where they leap out of the water and beat the surface with their fins.
The spectacular blue whale is the largest of all earth’s creatures, with some measuring over 30m long and weighing more than 130,000kg – that’s longer than three buses and heavier than three small trucks!
They’re a rare sight around the coast of New Zealand, as they usually travel alone (or with just one other pal) and there are only around 5,000 to 10,000 blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere. you will likely recognise the huge, iconic, powerful tail.
Bay of Islands whale watching tours
On a registered tour your whale watching boat will race toward the area where the spectacular animals are swimming. Then they will idle at a distance as you can rush from each of the boat to snap photos and videos.
Tour operators halt their propellers as per regulations, to cause minimal trauma or concern for the whales, although they may be curious and swim up to the boats. Some whales may be used to the boats, others may simply be curious. Perhaps some will even jump about to be playful.
It’s extremely exciting to get up close and personal, but it’s also important not to scream or get too loud– even though you may want to! It can startle them and affect their natural behaviour.
Most tour guides will give you some insight into each breed, and answer your burning questions.
There are a number of excellent tours that are usually packaged as both dolphin and whale watching tours.
Unfortunately, as you are on nature’s watch, you will not be guaranteed to see either dolphins or whales. But rest assured your expert guides know the top spots and times for the highest likelihood that you will come across some.
Can you swim with whales?
Regulations in New Zealand do not allow anyone to swim with whales. This is for your own safety and for conservation purposes.
If you are in the water and spot a whale nearby, don’t be alarmed. It’s unlikely you will come to any harm, but do get out of the water as fast as you can.
However, there are some registered tour operators who can take you swimming with dolphins , a beautiful experience of a lifetime!
When is the best time of year to see whales in the Bay of Islands?
Pods of local resident dolphins and orca, long-finned pilot and bryde’s whale can be seen all year around this large marine area. Although when it comes to orca, the summer months from October – March are particularly good whale watching months.
Autumn and spring are when you could spot the Humpback and Blue Whale, as they migrate down to Antarctic waters to feed and breed.
Sperm whales are usually only seen in Kaikoura in the South Island – an attractive feeding ground for them all year round.
Other marine life in the Bay of Islands
Thanks to its subtropical climate and sheltered waters, the Bay of Islands is a haven for beautiful, unique and sometimes rare wildlife.
Over 500 wild dolphins live in the pristine waters up here so it’s one of the best places in New Zealand to have your life-changing encounter. You’ll most likely see pods of bottlenose dolphins and common dolphins.
If you’re keen to throw over a fishing line, you’d likely catch some delicious Kahawai, Snapper, Trevally or Kingfish. (Check out our fishing guide for more)
The Bay is blessed with a ‘blended zone’ that’s often referred to as subtropical – with tropical fish brought down by currents to the more temperate environment. So there is an array of colours and unusual creatures to spot if you’re a snorkeler or diver.
Other marine life of note is the huge, gentle manta rays that can weigh over 300kg and can be up to 3 metres across. You may also see the cute New Zealand fur seal, or ‘kekeno’ in Māori, bathing in the sun on a rock. (Note to self – don’t get too close to these guys).
Read our wildlife guide for more info.
Where else can you see whales in New Zealand?
If you’re lucky enough to tour other areas of the country double check how close you are to one of these top coastal locations, and book a whale watching adventure.
A small coastal town in the South Island, Kaikōura has become one of the top international tourist destinations for whale watching, and an abundance of marine life.
Sperm whales are one of the deepest diving and most rare whales in the world to spot and Kaikōura offers the best views of these magnificent beasts. Interesting facts: sperm whales can grow up to 20 meters and live for 70 years, and they have the biggest brains on earth.
You could also spot a blue whale, humpback and of course loads of dolphins and other marine life.
From October and March, you increase your chances of seeing orca in amongst this serene island paradise. But in the opposing winter season, you would be more likely to see Humpback Whales and Southern Right Whales as they migrate slowly through the Sounds – perhaps they’re stopping by the quaint inlets to admire the beauty of the area or just to say hello.
Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf Marine Park
The Hauraki Gulf is the expansive harbour surrounding Auckland, and boasts more than 1.2 million hectares, 50 islands and six marine reserves, making it a great whale watching spot.
Researchers suggest that one third of the world’s marine species having visited the Hauraki Gulf. This is the home to the rare Bryde’s whale. There are fewer than 200 of them in New Zealand.
Moutohora Island – Bay of Plenty
Moutohora Island is also named Whale Island, and you guessed it – it’s one of the best places to see whales in New Zealand. Spot common and bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales and orca, while larger migratory baleen whales (southern rights and rorquals) and toothed whales including beaked whales also appear from time to time.
Akaroa – Canterbury
Many associate Akaroa with salmon but it’s also where dolphins and whales like to dip and dive, in particular, humpback whales.
Whale Watching Safety
Whale watching is huge industry in many countries, and very seldom do we hear of a major incident on a whale-watching vessel.
All reputable companies will have life jackets for everyone on board, and will have strict safety policies to offer you peace of mind. Always listen to your tour operators instructions.
If you are on a private vessel – here are some rules you must adhere to:
Taken from the latest Department of Conservation guidelines:
- Ensure that you travel no faster than idle or ‘no wake’ speed within 300 m of any marine mammal.
- Approach whales and dolphins from behind and to the side.
- Do not circle them, obstruct their path or cut through any group.
- Keep at least 50 m from whales (or 200 m from any large whale mother and calf or calves).
- Swimming with whales is not permitted.
- You may swim with seals and dolphins, but not with dolphin pods containing younger animals especially young calves. You can spot calves as they’re about half the size of an adult dolphin and often swimming close to their mothers. Some calves may still have foetal fold markings that are pale vertical lines on their sides.
- Avoid approaching closer than 20 m to seals and sea lions hauled out on shore.
- Idle slowly away. Speed may be gradually increased to out-distance dolphins and should not exceed 10 knots within 300 m of any dolphin.
Whale conservation in New Zealand
New Zealand is a strong advocate for the protection of whales and is a founding member of the International Whaling Commission. Our government has long opposed so-called ‘scientific’ whaling conducted under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.
There are a number of conservation and academic organisations here that aim to study and maintain the protection of migratory whales in and around New Zealand, and the Department of Conservation (DOC) develops government-level conservation policies.
If you catch or harm a whale by accident
If you accidentally catch, harm or kill a dolphin or whale while out on the water, you must report it as soon as possible to DOC’s emergency hotline 0800 DOCHOT (0800 362 468) or the Ministry for Primary Industries (0800 008 333).If a whale is still alive you should release it back into the water as quickly and gently as possible. If the dolphin is dead, either release the carcass at sea or preferably bring it to shore for DOC to recover.