New Zealand with kids – discovering South Island’s Native Wildlife

New Zealand for families - whale at Kaikoura

When planning a family vacation, finding activities that are both fun and educational can be a challenge, right? But did you know that in New Zealand’s South Island, you can have the best of both worlds by exploring the diverse and unique native wildlife while creating unforgettable experiences for your children? In this post, you’ll discover some of the top family-friendly wildlife activities in New Zealand. 

There are a great number of top spots on South Island that are perfect for traveling with kids. This guide highlights what makes each location so special and why it’s a great choice for families.

Exploring the flora and fauna of New Zealand’s South Island

South Island is a great destination for families that love nature and adventure. Beaches, fiords, forests, lakes, glaciers… the mountainous island has it all. With six forest parks and ten national parks, there’s plenty to discover. Let’s take a closer look at the best family-friendly places for discovering local wildlife on South Island.

Also interesting to read:
The best places to visit in Australia, New Zealand and Samoa with kids

Whale Watching in Kaikoura

Located on the east coast of South Island, Kaikoura is a small town that boasts some of the most diverse marine life in New Zealand, with the humpback whale being a particularly spectacular sight. Visitors can embark on a real Kaikoura whale watching tour, where they will be taken out to sea to witness these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat! The tour guides are highly knowledgeable and passionate about marine biology, providing visitors with an in-depth understanding of the local whales of New Zealand and their ecosystem.

This experience is not only thrilling, but also educational, making it an ideal activity for families and children to learn more about marine conservation while getting a chance to see these magnificent creatures up close. The best time to see whales in Kaikoura is during the summer months from June to august.

In addition to whale-watching, Kaikoura is also an ideal destination for swimming with dolphins, seal swimming and bird watching, making it a perfect destination for families who love marine life and adventure.


Seals, dolphins & natural wonders of the West Coast

The West Coast of South Island is a must-see destination for anyone visiting New Zealand. The rugged coastline is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including seals, dolphins, and even whales. One of the best places to spot these animals is at Punakaiki, where you can take a guided tour of the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. The tour will take you along the coast, where you’ll have the opportunity to see seals lounging on the rocks and dolphins surfing in the waves.

But Punakaiki offers more than just marine life viewing opportunities. The Pancake Rocks and Blowholes, located near the Punakaiki Visitors Center, are a geological wonder that is not to be missed. The rocks are made up of alternating layers of limestone and sandstone that have been eroded over time, creating the unique “pancake” formations. Visitors can walk along the boardwalk and see the blowholes in action as water rushes through the rocks, creating powerful geysers. The blowholes are at their most active during high tide, making it a spectacular show to witness.

In addition to the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes, visitors can also explore the nearby limestone caves, which are home to a variety of unique and delicate cave formations. The caves are also a popular spot for glow worms, which emit a bright blue light at night, making for an unforgettable experience. Your kids will love the creepy crawler experience!


Visit Nelson Lakes National Park

The Nelson Lakes National Park offers a range of hiking trails that cater to different skill levels, making it a great destination for families. The trails vary in length and difficulty, so it’s easy to find one that’s suitable for your kids’ abilities.

The park also offers guided bird-watching tours that are specifically designed for families. These tours are led by experienced guides who will teach kids about the different bird species found in the park, their behavior, and their habitat. The guides will also provide binoculars and bird identification guides to help kids spot and identify the birds.

The park is home to a wide variety of bird species, including the tui, kea, bellbird, and fantail. These birds are known for their striking colors and unique calls, making them an exciting subject for children to explore. Additionally, the park offers a great opportunity for children to learn about the importance of conservation and the threats faced by endangered species such as the Nelson Lakes shag.


Watching Hector’s dolphins in Akaroa

Akaroa is a charming seaside town that’s situated on the Banks Peninsula. The town is home to a large population of Hector’s dolphins, which are the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world. You can take a dolphin-watching tour, which will take you out to sea to spot these amazing animals.

New Zealand family trip Akaroa

It’s important to note that Hector’s dolphins are critically endangered and are facing several threats, including human activities such as fishing and pollution. The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) is working to protect these animals and their habitat. They have set up several marine reserves in areas where Hector’s dolphins are known to live, and they’re also working with local communities and industries to reduce the impacts of human activities on these dolphins.

One way that kids can help protect Hector’s dolphins is by supporting sustainable fishing practices and not buying seafood that’s been caught using methods that could harm the dolphins, such as set nets and trawling. Kids can also learn about the importance of reducing pollution and preserving natural habitats, and they can spread the word to their friends and family about the importance of protecting these amazing animals. Sounds like the perfect subject for a school project, am I right?


Having fun at The National Kiwi Centre

The National Kiwi Centre is in the town of Otorohanga, which is known as the “Kiwi Capital of the World”. The Centre is dedicated to the conservation and breeding of the national bird of New Zealand, the kiwi! It’s a great place to visit for children, as they will have the opportunity to see kiwis up close and learn about their habitat and life cycle. The Centre is home to several kiwi species, including the North Island brown kiwi and the great spotted kiwi.

The Centre offers a variety of activities for kids, such as kiwi-themed games and puzzles, interactive exhibits, and a kiwi hatchery where they can see kiwi chicks being incubated and raised. Children will also have the opportunity to participate in a kiwi feed, where they can watch as the birds are fed live insects and worms. How cool is that? 

The Centre also offers guided tours, where visitors can learn more about the kiwi and the Centre’s conservation efforts.

Exploring The Orokonui Ecosanctuary

The Orokonui Ecosanctuary is a unique and special place just outside of Dunedin. It is a protected area of native bush where visitors can see a wide variety of native New Zealand birds, animals, and plants. The ecosanctuary is home to species that are threatened or endangered, like the tuatara, kaka and the kakariki.

The ecosanctuary offers a variety of guided tours that are suitable for children of all ages. These tours are led by knowledgeable guides who will explain the history and ecology of the ecosanctuary, as well as the conservation efforts that are being made to protect the native species.

During the tour, kids will have the opportunity to learn about the different animals and plants that live in the ecosanctuary and learn about the importance of conservation. They can also participate in fun activities like bird watching, tracking animals and searching for insects. In addition, there is a playground and picnic area for kids to enjoy.

Visiting the Orokonui Ecosanctuary is not only fun for kids, but it is also an important educational experience. It is a great way for children to learn about the natural world and the importance of preserving it for future generations.


South Island of New Zealand is a perfect destination for families who love nature and adventure. The island is home to a wide variety of native wildlife, and the destinations we’ve highlighted in this guide offer some of the best opportunities to see these animals in their natural habitat. Whether it’s seals and whales on the Kaikoura coast, native birds in Nelson Lakes National Park, or rare dolphins in Akaroa, there’s something for everyone. 

Not only will your children have the opportunity to see these amazing animals up close, but also learn about conservation and the importance of protecting endangered species. So pack your bags and get ready to discover the wonders of South Island’s native wildlife with your kids.

Have fun!

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