Traveling North and South Island of New Zealand with responsible travel company Traverse Journey provided me with an intimate look at New Zeland’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 the 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.
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 ecotour operator. They have since received various awards for their work.
Visiting the Helps’ farm, you’ll find dozens and dozens of homes they built for breeding pairs and the safe spaces they have created for the penguins to thrive. Their daughter has said that growing up while her parents worked tirelessly on saving the penguins meant she often fell asleep listening to penguin noises, as they were allowed to nest in the floorboards of her bedroom. During storms, her kitchen would transform into a nursing home for injured penguins.
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 first hand, so you know that every penny you spent helps these amazing animals live to see another day.
DID YOU KNOW: The Maori word for little penguin is Kororā
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.
Akaroa in November – Perfect for Little Penguin Viewing.
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.
Booking And Penguin Tour Options
Pohatu Penguins and the Helps family offer several tours to learn about and see the penguins. The knowledgable staff is always observing and collecting data. It is interesting to see what information they collect and why it is important. On some of the tours, such as the Evening Penguin Tour or the longer Nature Tour, you might lend your hand in data collection for some first-hand experience! There are four penguin tours, ranging from evening tours to see the active penguins coming ashore, to nature tours during the day, kayaking, and for those the true penguin fanatics an overnight stay.
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.
Cost: $75 for adults NZD
Nature Penguin Tour
Take a 2 or 4 hour scenic tour of the stunning learn about the flora and fauna in the areas and the penguin conservation program. Both tours get a tour of the farm, 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.
Cost: $65 – $95 for adults NZD
There are two kayak tours to choose from. The early morning kayak tour that 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 dependant on weather and ocean conditions and include all the gear you need for kayaking and a guide.
Cost: $75-$95 for adults with discounts for groups. NZD
The package allows you to stay overnight in a rustic beach side 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 greay way to escape into nature, while supporting the conservation efforts of New Zealand’s little penguins.
What to Pack
The weather in this area can be unpredictable with the mountains and water, so pack according to in case it rains or cools off in the evening. I would bring a jacket, pants, sturdy shoes like runners or hiking shoes, your camera – NO FLASH, dinner or a snack, and water. A backpack to keep everything in is super helpful.
They provide binoculars, camo cover, transportation, and a guide.
Evening Little Penguin Experience: A Review
The great thing about traveling with Traverse Journeys on their New Zealand Fantasy Tour is all the great ethical additional excursions you can book during your free time. I decided to book the Pohatu Penguin Evening Tour with the Helps family. As the sun started to get lower, we met at a pick-up point in Akaroa, where we met our guide Kevin, an Environmental Studies graduate from France. He met a member of the family, fell in love, and decided to stay and dedicate his life to saving penguins and protecting the wildlife in New Zealand.
Our tour started with a drive up and over a lush mountainside. The views opened up to the quaint harbor village below. We stopped for photos, and our guide talked about some flora and fauna in the area. The lighting was just perfect, with the sun getting lower over the water as herds of sheep grazed on the hillside. We took two photo stops during our climb up the mountains. As we summited our 4×4 van began to traverse a narrow dirt road. We had to drive slow to ensure that sheep could cross freely and safely. As we descended the other side of the mountain, a hidden cove appears, this is where the last hillside colony of little penguins lives in New Zealand. We parked our van and entered a gate to the humble farmstead of the Helps family to a surprise.
Sheep, tons of fluffy baby sheep came bounding out to meet us – and we got to bottle feed the babies and feed the chubby adults. It was a magical moment that I will cherish forever. After feeding sheep and other farm animals, we were given an orientation about how important it is to respect the penguins. We all put on fantastic camo jackets, as to blend in and not startle the little penguins. After everyone was suited up and ready to be safe around the penguins, we went over to our first nest. The nest was a hand made wooden box with a number on it, Kevin, gently lifted the top of the nest and inside was a snuggling breeding pair. We learned about how to collect data about penguins and important identifiers of healthy pairs. We took note if they were male and female if they had an egg and other notes about the pair or individual penguin. We learned that there is some fierce competition for nests and eggs – meaning that penguins can take each other home, steal eggs, and in this whole process, eggs can get destroyed. Data collection is vital to see how many eggs are there every day if parents are switching, stealing eggs, or nesting on a broken egg. In essence, this all informs the conservation efforts of how many babies might make it and, in turn, how many new penguins might join the colony. The wooden houses were hand made by the Helps family, but not locals participate in the efforts and build and donate homes. The handmade homes are essential because erosion or anthropogenic disasters can destroy their natural homes. The best way to give penguins a fighting chance is to give them a safe and comfortable place to breed. We did see some natural nests as well, but they were few and far between.
We checked out a few nests and helped Kevin collect data before moving down to the viewing platform. Just as the sun was setting, we set up a large telescope and got out our binoculars. We could see penguins swimming in the water coming toward us. When the sun all but completely set and darkness set in, they started to go to shore. We learned that penguins make a straight line to their nest no matter if it is the harder way, we saw them climb over a seal – their predator who thankfully was uninterested, clamber over rocks, jump, fall, and flop their way back up to their nests. The entire time Kevin was giving us information about the penguins, answering questions, pointing them out, and taking notes.
After some time, it was time to let the penguins settle in for the night, and we began the trek home and back to the van. We returned very late, so I suggested you eat dinner before or pack food as most restaurants will be closed.
Help Save the Penguins & Learn More
It was such a great value and every educational. I felt good learning about the conservation efforts and knowing my money is going toward a good family doing amazing things. I highly recommend this tour as the best thing to do in Akaroa and a top ecotour in New Zealand to see the little penguins.
Learn more about the tours and conservation efforts on the Pohatu Penguins website. Please make sure you book your tour using my Get Your Guide links or directly from the website to ensure you are booking a Department of Conservation certified experience with the Helps family.
If you can’t visit and learn about the penguin colony in person then consider adopting a penguin.