An evening with New Zealand’s little blue penguins

(Last Updated On: June 26, 2022)

For a unique night out in New Zealand, spend an evening watching little blue penguins come ashore on the Otago Peninsula.

Little Blue Penguin heading back to its nest on New Zealand's Otago Peninsula -

New Zealand’s blue penguins

Visitors to New Zealand can generally plan to see three types of penguins: yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho), Fiordland crested penguins (tawaki), and little blue penguins (kororā). However, visitors are most likely to see little blue penguins, as they breed in large groups and are the most common penguin in New Zealand.

Officially known as little penguins, they are also called blue penguins, little blue penguins, and – in Australia –fairy penguins. All of these names are relatively descriptive, as the diminutive penguins are the smallest penguins and have dark feathers with a blue sheen.

An evening with Dunedin’s penguins

Extending out from the city of Dunedin, the rocky Otago Peninsula is home to several penguin colonies. Like little blue penguins throughout New Zealand, the Otago Peninsula’s penguins spend the day at sea and return to land only after sunset. Even when nesting, one penguin will stay hidden inside the nest during the day while the other is out at sea feeding. This nocturnal activity makes it hard to see little blue penguins in the wild.

On the Otago Peninsula this difficulty is addressed through a viewing platform and special lighting that allow visitors to watch the Pilots Beach colony of blue penguins return to their nests each evening.

Little Blue Penguin heading back to its nest on New Zealand's Otago Peninsula -

A theater for watching the penguins

Pilots Beach is located at the base of the high rocky headland at the end of the Otago Peninsula.

The penguin viewing platform here is a large, sturdy structure. No effort was made to camouflage it, but that doesn’t matter. New Zealand’s little blue penguins have been known to nest in building foundations and other developed areas, so a man-made structure doesn’t scare them. And the viewing platform leaves plenty of space for nests and is complemented by man-made nesting boxes.

Light is a bigger problem. Some penguins come ashore while it’s still light, so you have a better chance of seeing them. That’s not true for little blue penguins. They generally wait until after sunset – often well after sunset – to come ashore for the night. Because people can’t see the penguins in the dark, a lighting system that doesn’t bother the penguins was developed and installed along the viewing platform. As long as visitors don’t use flashlights, camera flashes, or other lights, the penguins seem oblivious to the lighting situation.

Waiting for the penguins to appear

Since the penguins won’t appear until the sun sets, it’s already dusk when we are allowed to walk down to the viewing platform.

The boardwalk takes us down to the shore through scrubby native vegetation that is filled with the sound of birds. (We didn’t do any daytime bird watching here and the walk down makes me wish we had.)

It ends at the viewing platform.

There is a seating area on the platform, but – since it is set back quite a bit from the railing – we choose to stand along the railing. We aren’t sure where the penguins will come ashore, so we pick a spot with a good view out to sea.

From there we watch seals and seagulls on the beach, all the while scanning the sea for penguins as the sun sets.

Sunset at Pilots Beach on New Zealand's Otago Peninsula -

The penguins arrive

We’ve been told that the penguins will gather together in groups (called rafts) just off the beach and then swim in together for safety. (Penguins don’t move very fast on land.) And, as the last rays of the sun fade, we see a few heads bobbing in the water off the beach.

Apparently they will only wait so long for the rest of the colony to appear, because the first one we see comes ashore alone. Or maybe he’s the scout. At any rate, soon there are groups of two or three. And then we see groups of a dozen or more swirling in the water before coming ashore.

Once on the beach, they receive an irritated greeting from sea gulls that seem surprised the penguins once again chose to come ashore here!

The penguins have to cross the sandy beach and then climb over piles of rock before reaching the slope where their nests are hidden.

Luckily for us, the path to their nests (some of which are actually located underneath the viewing platform) runs right along the edge of platform. We are literally within a foot of these wonderful birds!

As they run/waddle past, some hurry along with their head down. Others stop to stretch and preen. As the paths fill with penguins, they stop to call with barks, squeaks, and trills. Somewhere under the viewing platform a fight breaks out, with lots of angry-sounding squawking.

It’s absolutely fascinating.

I would guess we saw at least 100 little blue penguins during the evening and there were still a few more coming in when we had to leave. That’s a lot, but of course, one can never see enough penguins!

Make plans to see Dunedin’s penguins

Just beyond the city of Dunedin, New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula offers opportunities to see both little blue and yellow-eyed penguins.

Other places to see little blue penguins

Besides the Dunedin area, New Zealand’s blue penguins can be found at a number of South Island beaches in the Marlborough Sounds, Akaroa Harbor, Oamaru, and Stewart Island.

If you are lucky you may see penguins when you are out at the beach in any of these places. If you do:

  • Don’t go near them
  • Keep your dog away from them
  • Don’t make loud noises

There is also another observation facility north of Dunedin at the Blue Penguin Colony in Oamaru. Unlike the Pilots Beach colony, visitors observing the Oamaru penguins must remain seated and photography is prohibited.

Happy World Penguin Day!  

penguin with text "Little Blue Penguins Dunedin, New Zealand


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11 thoughts on “An evening with New Zealand’s little blue penguins”

  1. Love little blue penguins! I never ended up seeing any in the wild when I was in New Zealand, because it was too cold when I was there to want to sit on a beach at night. I did see some being fed at the Antarctic Centre in Christchurch though (and wombats in the wild in Australia, which was one of the highlights of the trip)!

    1. I have not seen wombats, but I think they would be really cool to see. You need to go to South Africa – the penguins outside Cape Town are bigger than the little blues, but the beach is nice and warm so it is easy and comfortable to watch them!

  2. The same experience we had at Philips Island off Melbourne. But you were able to take photos??? Probably because they have that special lighting!

    1. Yes, they allow photos, but no flash – not even the little seeker light that most cameras have to help them focus. They asked everyone to turn that focus light off or not use their camera if they couldn’t or didn’t know how to turn it off. And they watched closely. I think there are more in Melbourne, but generally the same thing. They’re so cute!

  3. The penguins are adorable. What a thrill for you to see them and experience them. I had never heard of the blue penguin. What a great big wonderful world we live in!!

  4. I’ve been to New Zealand last year but I missed seeing the little blue penguins, Cindy! They are so astonishing. The wait seems like lots of fun and an unforgettable experience!

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