New Zealand’s Royal Albatross Centre offers a safe haven for nature’s contrast. It’s the nesting grounds for both the largest of the country’s seabirds and the world’s smallest penguin. With conservation and animal protection at its forefront, it offers an opportunity for visitors to observe both the Royal Albatross and the Little Blue Penguins (tours now run independently), without disturbing either.
Well worth the drive out to the end of the Otago Peninsula, the Royal Albatross Centre is a place for learning and discovery. Opting for a late afternoon visit, we were able to see the massive albatross both nesting and in flight, as well as the fairy penguins (Little Blue) returning home for the evening.
Below we share our experience but also encourage you to visit if you are in Dunedin.
Our visit to the Royal Albatross Centre
As the Northern Royal Albatross spreads its massive wings, I thought this day couldn’t get any better.
Then, our second Royal Albatross Centre tour brought us to a beach that is now a Little Blue Penguin habitat. Here, we witnessed 95 fairy penguins return from the sea, waddle across the sand, and climb the rocks just metres from where we stood.
The evening’s magic is burned into my brain. The birds are extraordinary; one is the world’s largest flying species, and the other is the world’s smallest penguin.
As a photographer, it was a bit of a miss, one of my first fails. Excitement, fog, tinted observation area glass (albatross), and shadows (penguins) create a less-than-ideal photography shoot. Yet, our time at the Royal Albatross Centre was a highlight of our recent visit to Dunedin.
It began with a picturesque drive to Taiaroa Head at the end of the Otago Peninsula.
Here, the albatross created a home, and the Royal Albatross Centre offers tours. We opted to do it all.
First, we joined one of the albatross tours, then we explored Fort Taiaroa. Next, we enjoyed dinner at the cafe, and finally, we watched a breeding colony of penguins return to their habitat.
Albatross colony Dunedin
Taiaroa Head is home to the only mainland breeding colony of the Northern Royal Albatross in New Zealand. They mate for life, returning here once every two years to breed. They produce one chick per breeding cycle, and they sit on that egg for 79 days before it hatches.
Albatross is the world’s largest flying species, and the Northern Royal Albatross is the third largest of the breed, weighing in at up to 9kg.
Their massive wingspan expands up to three metres. Graceful to witness, they glide, rarely flapping their wings. Once a chick has fledged, it will take 10 days to fly from New Zealand to South America at speeds up to 120 kph, returning to Taiaroa Head as a teen to find a mate.
Watch the albatross on NZ’s Department of Conservation’s live webcam.
Fort Taiaroa and the Armstrong disappearing gun
The historic Fort Taiaroa is one of New Zealand’s earliest settlements. A Maori camp in the 1300s, it later became a fortified Pa and was one of many sites where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840.
Like many peninsulas in New Zealand, Taiaroa Head was used for defence, first by the Maori, and then later by New Zealand. Similar to North Head in Devonport, Fort Taiaroa was built underground and into the hill during the 1880s for fear of Russian invasion. Both sites use a system of tunnels and the famous New Zealand Armstrong disappearing gun.
The images below are:
- The Armstrong disappearing gun with its hand-driven pump is in the foreground.
- An underground tunnel in Fort Taiaroa.
Dinner at the Toroa Cafe
We took the last albatross tour of the day. This left us with enough time to enjoy dinner before the penguin tour started at dusk. The floor-to-ceiling atrium-style windows make the Toroa Cafe a pleasant place to enjoy a meal or a coffee. (It was named Albatross Cafe the last time we ate there.)
Breeding colony of penguins
As the sunset, we headed out for our second tour, this time to see the penguins come home.
Standing on the platform overlooking Pilots Beach, we watched for movement in the water. Each evening at dusk, the Little Blue Penguins come home in groups called rafts.
Easy to spot, from first glance, I felt the excitement. The Royal Albatross Centre has installed lights, allowing us to see it all without disturbing the birds. The natural atmosphere enhances the magic.
The gentle breeze carries the fresh aroma of the ocean mixed with wafts of damp penguins. Their tiny bodies waddle up the beach, scamper over the rocks, and disappear into burrows. The loud squawking vocalization of the penguins is the only thing that interrupts our thoughts.
We saw 95 Little Blues that night. They are part of a breeding colony of penguins that mate for life and return to the same spot on Pilots Beach daily.
At only 25 cm tall, their camouflage protects these flightless birds from penguin predators. Their blue backs look like the ocean to flying birds from above, while their white bellies appear like a glow from the sun to penguin predators lurking under the sea.
Note: While it was run by the Royal Albatross Centre when we visited, today, the tour is run by Blue Penguins Pukekura. The penguin portion of the experience is the same as we described above. However, the new tour discusses the significance of the reserve to the Māori people. In 2022, it was voted among the top 10 best experiences in New Zealand on Trip Advisor. Reserve your Blue Penguins Pukekura tour here.
What you need to know before visiting the Royal Albatross Centre
- The New Zealand Department of Conservation manages the albatross colony as a nature reserve, while the Royal Albatross Centre is operated by the Otago Peninsula Trust. Both organizations focus on preservation and education.
- As there is no public or self-guided access to the nature reserve or beach, penguin and albatross tours are the only way to see this breeding area. Tour fees help pay for conservation work.
- Daily penguin or albatross tours should be booked in advance, as they often fill up.
- The cafe closes one hour before dusk. If you want to do what we did, order your meal before the albatross tour.
- The Royal Albatross Centre is just one of many fascinating things to do in Dunedin.
- Otago Peninsula’s nickname is the Wildlife Capital of New Zealand.
- Little Blue Penguins live in many places in the southern hemisphere. Find them and other New Zealand penguins here.
Getting to the Royal Albatross Centre
- The Royal Albatross Centre is at Harington Point on Taiaroa Head, the farthest tip of the Otago peninsula.
- It’s an easy drive if you have a vehicle, and there is plenty of parking. The drive takes nearly 1.5 hours from Dunedin city centre, but there are plenty of things to see along the way, so plan to make a day of it.
Save on your NZ trip with these resources
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Before you book the rest of your trip: Check out our travel resources page for more companies that we use when you travel.
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Will you see it all at the Royal Albatross Centre?
For more on New Zealand, start here: New Zealand Road Trips: Itineraries for North or South Island Adventures, or you might like …
Disclaimer: The Royal Albatross Centre hosted our visit. However, the opinions expressed here are strictly my own.
I love learning more about interesting places in New Zealand. I’d love to see the albatross and penguins in the wild.
I like the Royal Albatross with egg. That’s such a great visual. What a cool place to visit. My oldest always had a interest in penguins.
Indah Nuria Savitri
Those penguins are supeeer cute! I remember seeing similar ones in Melbourne 🙂
Albatross in flight photos are spectacular! I am sure it must have been a special moment to see the bird with largest wingspan soaring by. I quite enjoyed reading about the cute little penguins too.
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This post was absolutely fascinating and the photos exquisite! I love the photo of the albatross with the egg and the little penguins. Looks like quite an adventure
That looked a great place to visit to see all those birds. Like the look of the food that does look tasty
Animal / bird photography is an art, and you seem to have a hang of it 🙂 Close up shots of the albatross are wonderful, specially with the lighthouse in the background. The first time I saw penguins in New Zealand, I fell for their cuteness. I can imagine myself having the time of my life in this penguin colony.
Fairy penguins are my favorite! One of those creatures you could visit time and time again but never get enough of! The whole day sounds great, what an awesome way to do it, with an albatross tour and Fort Taiaroa before the Penguins. Sad photography wise that the weather wasn’t great for you – but sometimes I find these moments force us to put the camera down and really experience the moment 🙂
I would love to see it all at the Royal Albatross Center!
That’s pretty cool that you were able to see one of the worlds largest flyers and then right after smallest penguin – all in one spot! I would say you did pretty well from a photography standpoint regardless of fog, excitement, and everything else. I can’t get over the fact that one of these albatrosses can fly from New Zealand to South America in 10 days. That’s just incredible. The wildlife and specifically the birds are just so unique and interesting in New Zealand. I could do without the Weka’s though, they’ll steal anything that isn’t nailed down!
I wish these were all my photos, but many of them were supplied by the albatross centre. They are credited above to the photographer.
A ShutterBug Explores
Wonderful post and photos ~ excellent ~ my favorite is the close up of the penguins ~ great shot!
A ShutterBug Explores,
aka (A Creative Harbor)
Fascinating post! First, the penguins are wonderful! Second, the bunker and disappearing gun was really interesting! To think that New Zealanders were worried about Russian invasion in the 1880s! Thirdly, I love albatross photos and info because I lived on Midway Island in the Pacific as a child and these albatross’s cousins were everywhere! 🙂 Great photos and wonderful info.
Wow spectacular shots Rhonda very clear and all those penguins oh and that food I want some heheh!
I enjoyed the post
Have a penguintastic week 🙂
Squeals of delight!
Wow! That is a LOT of penguins! Nice top view shot for the breeding colony. Albatross Cafe seems interesting! Wish you had photos of the place.
This looks really similar to the experience I had at Penguin Island outside of Melbourne. Great pictures!
Loved your photographs, even if it was a bit of a “miss” (I’m sure we all know that feeling). I think it’s interesting that the birds mate for life. I don’t feel like there are too many species that do that. Maybe this is weird, but I think it’s great that birds can find true love, haha. Thanks for the great post. Will definitely have to check out Taiaroa Head.
Aww the little penguins are adorable! It is difficult to get good shots of wildlife, but you have done an amazing job.
Rhonda, your photos i9n this article are just stunning. I found myself just flicking back and forth through them all. I honestly didn’t know that these penguins were the smallest in the world. Just so adorable. I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually seen an albatross in real life either. Would definitely love to visit this place.
Your photos are so cute. I could have spent all day looking at the birds. I had no idea albatross flew so fast! I just remember learning as a kid that they had a hard time landing. I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t know penguins lived in New Zealand, but I’m glad to know I don’t have to go all the way to Antarctica, not that I don’t want to do that too. Hopefully I can make it down there sometime next year.
Ah your post makes me envious! I love penguins so the albatross tour sounds perfect for me! I’ll need to remember to book in advance when I visit New Zealand!
Birgit | Groove Is In The Heart
I’ve never heard of the Little Blue Penguins – it must have been so special to see them. They are adorable! (We also have a colony of small penguins here in Cape Town, an endangered species called the African penguins, and I love to visit them.) Your albatross pics are fantastic, there is something so majestic about these birds!
Aww they’re so adorable!! Would love to see them in their natural habitat!
Wow, this is an educating post. I wonder how the ALbatross fly with their 9 kgs of weight – probably the long wings help. The little blue Penguins are so endearing.
I think New Zealand is a paradise for birds, but I agree the birds are hard to photograph. I love penguins but wasn’t aware about Little Blue Penguin. There are so many species… My first toy as a toddler was a penguin.
This post came at the perfect time! I’ve been dying to see penguins – any species of penguin – in the wild my whole life, and my husband and I just bought tickets to New Zealand in January. We’re a little nervous because I hear it can be wicked expensive, but we’re going to try it out on a budget! Anyway, got a little distracted by my own excitement 😉 but this place is definitely on my list! How cool that you can see the smallest penguins and largest flying bird species all in one spot! I can’t wait to give it a go!
Looks like a great place to visit. Our kids love penguins. This place reminds me of Phillip Island near Melbourne in Australia. They have an amazing penguin colony there as well. The pie with chips and salad looks amazingly yummy
Learned some interesting new things about a bird I didn’t know much about- First, that’s awesome that they mate for life- I love it! I can’t believe they fly from NZ to South America either, that just seems crazy! Also I had no idea that NZ ever was afraid of Russians invading, that’s also crazy to me!! Finally, I LOVE penguins SO MUCH and I am so jealous you got to see so many! How cool!
Lois Alter Mark
I would love to see these gorgeous birds in person. I love penguins, especially, and they’re just so much fun to watch as they waddle around! What a magical experience you had!
I have somehow have been always so fascinated with Albatross but there is plenty I learnt today! Super impressed with their wing span of 3 meters…that’s massive! You might see this as a fail for you a photographer, but trust me your story brings a lot of joy to readers like us 🙂
Omg Rhonda! Those little blue penguins are freaking adorable!! Before reading this article, I saw the picture on social media today or yesterday and had been smiling at how cute they were since then. What a fun trip!
Lyn aka The Travelling Lindfields
I think we went to the albatross centre a few years ago. Sadly we didn’t see any albatross – I seem to remember we were there at the wrong time of day – the story of my life. I would love to see one in flight.
Lyn @ A Hole in my Shoe
We haven’t been to the south island yet but any place that has cute little penguins is a must see. I’ve never heard of kumara pie, sure sounds delicious.
Kumara is a New Zealand food, it is a Maori sweet potato.
Lydia C. Lee
Just lovely!! So cute.
These majestic albatrosses are stunning to see in person. When I worked at the shipping terminal in New Jersey I saw one. Had to be. So huge, just massive, and it had those distinct eyes. Turns out, these guys get lost sometimes when flying north from South America and may get caught in hurricanes or big storms that pull them into the Northeast USA. Sweet treat to see one in person.
An unexpected albatross must have been a really special site to see.
I love seeing Animals in the wild, and these are so cute. I would love to go to NZ one day and get to experience this for myself. Lovely photos!
A few years ago I read about the Little Blue Fairy Penguins and found them fascinating. Since I like to crochet little plush animals and have made several penguins, I decided to add the ‘Blue’ penguin to my collection. He’s so cute. 🙂
The Royal Albatross Centre sounds wonderful. I would love to visit. Meanwhile, I enjoyed your virtual tour.
PS: I had to look up Kumara, as I had no idea what it was… LOL. Sounds (and looks) like a delicious meal you had.
This post just made me smile. I had no idea there was such a place – and it definitely looks worth a visit
L. Diane Wolfe
The little penguins are so adorable. I’ve loved penguins ever since the comic Bloom County came out and introduced Opus.
What a cool place to go. I would love to go there.
So sooo cute!!!!! I can’t imagine what a special experience this must’ve been. Will defs have to check out that tour from Viator!
What a cool place to check out! Those albatross are such majestic birds and the penguins….well good to see them.
This is one tour I would definitely like to take someday. I know it must have been a highlight for you, since you love the penguins so much. What wonderful pictures! It also gives a new perspective on “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” and what it must be like to have a dead albatross hanging from one’s neck.
You called that right. It was a complete highlight. I don’t know the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, but I would not want 9kgs of anything hanging around my neck. And, if it was a different species of albatross, it could have been even larger.
Great shots as always. I will say I got stuck on your dinner. Yummy.
Have a fabulous day. ☺
Pies are a kiwi staple, and this one with the chicken and kumara is a real winner.
I so love visiting places where you can see wildlife and have often joined the local birding hikes. New Zealand is on my list and this is another reason to go. I would love to see both of these birds in person.
I love looking for birds, but I don’t like carrying a huge amount of camera gear. Therefore, I will never be a true bird photographer. But I am happy with what I can do.
Love this! The little penguin are so adorable! And the live cam is really cool too!
Great post and photos you shared here. Love those cute birds and i am pretty amazed with the nature of New Zealand.
Alex J. Cavanaugh
Well, you did get some good shots of the penguins.
I didn’t know albatrosses were one of the largest flying bird.
The albatross is the largest flying bird. There are several albatross species. The Northern Royal is the third largest of those. As for the photos, the best ones are not mine, as we had a foggy night, although considering the conditions, I was pleased with a few of my penguin photos.
You’re photos are just darling! I’m not familiar with Kumara, what is it?
Many of the photos were given to me by the Royal Albatross Centre, as we had a foggy night, not conducive for photos, but still fine for seeing the birds. Kumara is a Maori sweet potato. It is a commonly eaten food in New Zealand, similar to a yam.
This looks like a dream! especially the breeding colony of penguins! <3 soooo cute! I can't imagine how awesome it would be to witness 95 fairy penguins return from the sea, waddle across the sand, and climb the rocks! Such a memorable encounter! 🙂 One of the prime reasons NZ is on my list! Thank you for sharing Rhonda!!
That’s a very informative post, love all your pictures specially the little blue Penguin ones …
Hi Rhonda – what amazing photos that you’ve shared … I’d love to see an albatross sometime … and those fairy penguins … while the tour underground gave you a different perspective on life … great to see history – cheers Hilary
This brings back such great memories. I love NZ and wildlife and combining the two to visit the penguins was amazing. Great photos! Thanks for the trip down memory lane