Traveling North and South Island of New Zealand with the responsible travel company Traverse Journey provided me with an intimate look at New Zealand’s eco-tourism and conservation efforts. My favorite part of the whole country was a little slice of paradise called Akaroa, a small town on the Banks Peninsula just south of Christchurch. The drive down to Akaroa is an excellent look at the rich biodiversity of rural New Zealand with mountains, sweeping green valleys, fjords, and some of New Zealand’s most unique wildlife, the Pohatu penguins and the Hector Dolphins.
I highly recommend you see and learn about both species and their empowering conservation stories. However, for this post, we will focus on how to see wild little penguins in Akaroa, New Zealand, with an ethical ecotour to learn about their rehabilitation and the dangers they face. This colony of white-flipped penguins was pushed to the brink of extinction until a local couple took matters into their own hands to save them. Eventually, the conservation board stepped in to provide support, but their story of survival is amazing.
Booking an evening tour with family-owned Pohatu Penguins to learn about and observe the penguins is a top thing to do when visiting Akaroa. By booking through Pohatu, an expert guide who works directly with the conservation and preservation efforts of the species guides you for the evening, and your money goes directly back toward helping the penguins. Tours are ethical, safe for the penguins, non-invasive, and educational!
Akaroa Pohatu Little Penguin Colony Conservation
When Shireen, the founder of Pohatu Penguins, grew up on the Banks Peninsula, penguins were thriving in every bay. She recalls a time when seeing the penguins was just a part of her everyday life. Things soon took a turn for the worse as more people moved into the area along with predators such as ferrets and stoats.
The invasive predators hunted the penguins, and gill netting became popular, causing the species to enter the extinction vortex. Shireen and her husband Francis began to notice the penguin sightings were no longer frequent, and they were lucky to find even a few penguins.
The couple owns a secluded farm on a hill in a cove, where the little penguins lived. When Shireen and Francis Helps first started working toward penguin conservation, they asked the local Department of Conservation for help, but they had all but given up on the penguins, saying it was too late to save them. So, they decided to take action into their own hands and began the long and arduous task to conserve and rehabilitate the population. They did this through trapping predators, creating barriers and stable homes for the penguins, education, working with locals, and endless perseverance.Here are more about Montserrat nature park and monastery
The penguin numbers are steadily increasing, and the colony is now the largest little penguin colony in New Zealand and the last open hill colony. The Department of Conservation in New Zealand now supports and recognizes their efforts and certifies the family-owned business as an ethical eco-tour operator. They have since received various awards for their work.
You feel like you are part of their family too as you spend your time on the farm and in the safe bay where the penguins live. You learn and experience conservation firsthand, so you know that every penny you spent helps these amazing animals live to see another day.
When to See the Penguins
The penguins aren’t around all year, so if you are visiting from mid-February to mid-April, you’re most likely out of luck. You can contact them for a special tour during the winter months, which will allow you to support the cause and conservation efforts still, but you might not see penguins.
The best time to visit is September – mid-December. I visited in November, and we saw everything from nesting couples to active swimmers out hunting. All the dates outside of this have a rating of “highly likely” or “likely” chance to see penguins. Tour times change depending on the sunset, as dusk is the best time to see them, so ensure you know what time your specific tour starts.
On This Ecotour The Penguins Come First
It is important to note that this is not “a penguin parade,” all tours prioritize the penguins’ health and safety. You must adhere to all safety guidelines, which include no flash photography, keeping a safe distance, staying quiet, walking at night with no lights, following your certified guide, and in general, not being an ass.
These tours are available to help conservation, not for your pleasure or just to see cute little penguins. So, set your expectations and make sure you are viewing wildlife for the right reasons, or just stay at home and watch some penguins on TV.
Evening Penguin Tour
The evening penguin tour focuses on the penguins and you get to see them up and active. The penguins are most active just at dusk as they come in from a day of fishing and return to their nesting areas. The tour starts in Akaroa, and you take a scenic drive to the Helps’ farm and wait for dusk. You have the chance to learn about the conservation efforts, learn about data collection, and all about the penguins. You return home well after dark.
Nature Penguin Tour
Take a 2 or 4-hour scenic tour of the stunning and learn about the flora and fauna in the areas and the penguin conservation program. Both tours get a tour of the farm, and a peek at the nesting penguins during the day, but during the longer tour, you may have the chance to see rehabilitation efforts, including feeding and swim therapy! The longer tour also includes a more extensive scenic tour of the area and time for tea and a light snack.
There are two kayak tours to choose from. The early morning kayak tour lasts about 3 hours and includes kayaking with a guide, wildlife viewing, and a scenic drive. There is a 4-hour tour with a longer scenic tour, photo stops, and commentary. Both are dependent on weather and ocean conditions and include all the gear you need for kayaking and a guide.
The package allows you to stay overnight in a rustic beachside cottage. You participate in the evening penguin tour, discounted kayak tours, hiking or beach combing, or just relaxing under the night sky. You can choose from a 24 or 48-hour option and you will need to bring food to cook in the fully equipped kitchen. This is a great way to escape into nature while supporting the conservation efforts of New Zealand’s little penguins.