There are only a handful of spots remaining where one can see endangered yellow-eyed penguins in their natural habitat. Katiki Point Lighthouse, about an hour north of Dunedin on the South Island of New Zealand, is one of them.
Binoculars in hand, we began our walk. Turning a corner, we were caught off-guard by the close proximity to the fence of these beautiful New Zealand penguins.
Yellow-eyed penguins are aptly named for their bright yellow “headband” and yellow iris. They are considered the world’s rarest penguins.
Their Maori name is Hoiho, meaning “noise shouter”, as its piercing calls can be heard over the crashing waves. Click here to hear a sound recording.
With limited numbers, Hoiho’s largest threats are a change in food supply resulting from warming oceans and, sadly, humans.
Hoiho was the New Zealand Bird of the Year for 2019, named by Forest and Bird, New Zealand.
Getting to Katiki Point Lighthouse
We had been driving from Dunedin to Oamaru (and then onto Christchurch).
Our first stop of the day was Koekohe Beach to see the Moeraki boulders. From here, we headed to Katiki Point Lighthouse, commonly called the Moeraki Lighthouse.
The 15-minute drive is mostly on an isolated dirt path. It had us wondering if we were lost.
The lighthouse construction began in the late 1800s after far too many shipwrecks. According to legend, this includes the ancestral waka atua, whose lost cargo became the famous boulders.
Katiki Point Lighthouse and hike to spot yellow-eyed penguins
From the car park, the coastal path leads to the Katiki Point Lighthouse. Fully automated since 1975, the Katiki Point Lighthouse first shone in 1878. The wooden tower is 8 metres tall and 58 metres above sea level. The light is visible for ten nautical miles.
About 5-10 minutes beyond the lighthouse, we came to a stile allowing humans safe passage over the fence while keeping animals to either side.
Climbing over, the landscape became more rugged. Consequently, we began to see more wildlife. It was right at this point that we spotted our first couple of yellow-eyed penguins in the distance. Then, we noticed the one sitting closer to the fence.
We continued walking for another 10-15 minutes to the end of the peninsula. Here, we overlooked Katiki Beach.
Important information on penguin viewing
- The best time to view yellow-eyed penguins is from 3 pm to sunset, while they return from the sea, or at sunrise when they head out.
- Always stay out of view. Stay off of beaches that they frequent after 3 pm or anytime that penguins are present. All my shots at Katiki Point were taken at a distance using an Olympus OMD em5 camera with an Olympus 42-150 mm lens (equivalent to 28-300 mm on a full-frame DSLR).
- There are several free viewing locations along the east coast. Yellow-eyed penguins live at Bushy Beach, Katiki Point, Nugget Point Reserve, and Sandfly Bay. The first three are each within 5-10 minute walks from their car park. Sandfly Bay is a 30-minute walk.
Other wildlife near Katiki Point Lighthouse
First, we enjoyed the coastal beach. Then we spotted a New Zealand fur seal (Kekeno). Finally, we noticed a pup swimming in the water.
Other yellow-eyed penguin spottings
This is not the first time we have seen yellow-eyed penguins. We first visited the region about ten years ago. Then, we spotted them in the distance at Curio Bay in the Catlins.
Back then, we also opted for a tour at Penguin Place in Dunedin. Here, we stood quietly in a purpose-built trench, a hiding hut for humans. We watched these New Zealand penguins head to nesting boxes that seemed strategically placed for our viewing.
More about yellow-eyed penguins:
- Yellow-eyed penguins live only on the southeast coast of New Zealand’s South Island and on a few of the nearby smaller islands. These include Stewart Island, Auckland Islands, and Campbell Island.
- They are one of three penguin species that live in New Zealand, the other two being the Fiordland Crested Penguin (which we saw on Monro Beach several years ago) and Little Blue Penguins (which we saw in Dunedin at the Royal Albatross Centre and in Australia).
- Yellow-eyed penguins are a declining endangered population. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation’s 2019 estimate is fewer than 225 breeding pairs on the South Island. Importantly, due to conservation efforts, this number is up considerably from 127 breeding pairs in the early 90s.
Learn more about these endangered birds from the Department of Conservation: Yellow-eyed penguin / hoiho and or where to see and of the NZ penguins in the wild.
Save on your NZ trip with these resources
These are our go-to companies when we travel. We believe this list to be the best in each category. You can’t go wrong using them on your trip too.
- Flights: we use Expedia for the best and cheapest flight options.
- Accommodations: we use Booking.com (hotels) or BookABatch (self-contained).
- Cars (gas or electric): we use RentalCars to search for deals and dealer ratings.
- Campervans or Motorhomes: we use Campstar where Albom Adventures readers get a 3% discount
- Activity discounts: we check Bookme.com for discounts of up to 70% on activities.
- Private guides: we love the private guides at Tours by Locals
- Travel Insurance: our go-to is World Nomads*.
Check out our travel resources page for more companies that we use when you travel.
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Have you seen any of the New Zealand penguins?
For more on New Zealand, start here: New Zealand Road Trips: Itineraries for North or South Island Adventures, or you might like …
they are such neat little guys, once in a while we use to get baby penguins in Mangawhai
Ryan K Biddulph
How cool Rhonda. We visited Shag Point to see those gorgeous and smelly seals. Moeraki Boulders too, of course. So neat to see someone who has been in the same region. What a gorgeous ride from Timaru. Peaceful as can be. I miss New Zealand so much.
Lots of useful information and beautiful shots about the yellow eyed penguins. I had no idea there is such a species. You a least have three species of penguins in New Zealand, but we don’t have any in the States. When we went to South America I was hoping to see the penguin colonies in Punta Arenas, but they were already gone when we arrived. I bet it was totally worth driving on that dirt road to see these funny yellow eyed birds.
Wow, I truly find Penguin as adorable and stress reliever. I’ve been dreaming to see a penguin face to face, but unfortunately, until now, I didn’t get a chance. I can really feel how happy you are during this time, as seeing penguin is rarely happene. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.
wow.. i love penguins a lot and want to see them in real. Didn’t knew about the yellow eyed ones. The penguins tiny hut is as cute is he himself is.
Penguins are adorable – I can’t imagine seeing them in the wild. Thanks so much for sharing these terrific pictures and all the detailed information.
Great stumble upon! I had no idea that there were penguins in New Zealand too, especially ones as rare as the yellow-eyed variety. I love how the wildlife is so accessible in their natural habitat, completely undisturbed. I’m loving how more travel bloggers are reporting on ways to see wildlife simply through appreciation, as opposed to exploitation.
I love penguins and had no idea that the yellow-eyed penguins were endangered and were from this region. I still can’t believe you were able to see them in their natural habitat. I love your tips. Especially the best times to see them at around 3 to sunset.
Tatiana Green of Good Luck Mommy
What a great experience. Live penguins in action. I loved seeing these close up photos of animals that are the complete opposite of what is native to my desert home Arizona. And it’s kind of hard to wrap my head around penguins without snow. Just a different image for my small mind lol.
I love penguins they are so cute. When I saw the small penguins at Phillip Island in Australia we weren’t allowed to take any photos at all. I actually didn’t know there were penguins in New Zealand, but it makes sense hehe. I would have never have guessed they had yellow eyes. I really hope I can go to NZ one day and spot these cuties. Thank you for sharing 😀
I miss New Zealand so much! We only spent about nine months living there, but it is by far my favorite country. There’s so much to offer, and it’s certainly such a breath of fresh air in comparison to Asia. I love living in Vietnam, but it’s so hectic here!
Oh, the most charming penguin 🙂
What a really cool place to visit. Thanks for sharing.
Oh my gosh. Those yellow-eye penguins are just the cutest! They look like they have little swim goggles on. Thank you for the tips on when to see them – my husband and I are headed to NZ in January, and also for urging others to keep a safe distance (for the penguins) and put those zoom lenses to good use. It amazes me how many people aren’t respectful of animals!
That is so cool. I have never seen Penguins in the wild
Penguins are such strange yet amazing animals! I’d never heard of the yellow eyed penguin before, the only ones I’ve seen in the wild were at the Galapagos Islands which was also incredible to see. It’s great that they are building nesting boxes to help the birds, but perhaps a bit more privacy for them would be nice too! Although the one snuggling down in its box is very cute 🙂
I love penguinbs- thanks for the photos!
What an incredible experience, to be able to see those creatures outside of a zoo!
Wonderful post- I enjoyed all the information about the yellow eyed penguins, the amazing shots of the penguins and the beautiful scenery . I saw penguins in their habitat in the Falkland Islands last year but I don’t have a great camera nor am I a good photographer so i had to settle for some simple shots and some postcards.
Great photos, and really nice to see these rare creatures up close too. Thanks for sharing them 🙂
Love the wildlife and the nesting boxes, so cool how they are looked after
What a gorgeous animal! I love the photos, especially the one showing the storm rolling in!
Wow, so many amazing photos! You really got to see the wildlife up close!
What an incredible experience! I had no idea these kind of penguins were so rare. I love seeing any wildlife. There are a lot of sealions and jellyfish where I live, and it’s always so exciting to see them (: Your photos are gorgeous!
A ShutterBug Explores
Oh I love those yellow eyed penguins and the seal photos! Other photography is wonderful too!
Happy Week to you,
A ShutterBug Explores,
aka (A Creative Harbor)
These are a few of my favourite things: sea coasts, penguins, more penguins.
Your New Zealand penguins remind me of the little Galapagos penguins.
And sea lions! How wonderful!
This Canadian is thrilled with your blog post. We have sea lions but we are sorely lacking in penguins. Sigh.
An Unfittie’s Guide to Adventurous Travel
Hello, the penguins are cool. What a neat sighting. The lighthouse is pretty, great series of photos.
Happy Tuesday, enjoy your day!
It amazes me how you can stroll on the beach and see rare penguins. I’ve never seen one outside of a zoo.
I’m glad they build nesting boxes for them. Nice post – I didn’t even know there were yellow-eyed penguins. I think all penguins are cute – something about the little tuxedo look to them.
I had no idea there were penguins in NZ. I would be fascinated to see them.
Very informative, and some great shots here!
That was quite interesting they look quite cute too, the nearest I have been to a Penguin is in London Zoo heheh!
Have a pppppenguintastic day Rhonda 🙂
PS: I retyped my previous comment as it says it’s awaiting moderation Rhonda 😉
Thanks for not sitting down by heheh!
Katiki Point Lighthouse is one of the most beautiful attraction & most of peoples go there, I never get a change to be there but as I do see pictures & content about Katiki Point Lighthouse so it looks really amazing as Rhonda Albom shared this post with beautiful images & good content.
I love penguins, and we certainly went looking for these yellow-eyed cuties. We loved them.
Those penguins are so adorable! The most interesting animals I’ve seen in the wild were hippos in Botswana when I was much younger. We were in a little boat and suddenly this huge hippo emerged from the water a few metres away, stared at us for a bit, got bored and swam off. Until then, I had no real concept for just how big they were and the feeling of excitement and awe has stayed with me for 20 years. It was wonderful.
How could these cute little penguins be called noise shouters? I have not seen nor heard of them. How special to watch them
Thanks for sharing your knowledge about these rare beauties. They’re so rare I’ve never heard of them, which is cool, because now I can say that I learned something new today.
They are adorable! I hope to be in that part of the country sometime next summer.
How exciting to see them so close. I saw some of them in Singapore. Never knew they were of different varieties!
I’ve never seen a penguin outside a zoo or Sea World. I’ve certainly never seen the rare yellow-eyed penguin. Thanks for showing it to us.
What a great experience Rhonda!! I’ve seen bison and bears in the wild in Yellowstone.
Hi Rhonda! No, I’ve never seen yellow-eyed penguins. I didn’t know they existed, so thanks for this. Hmm. Scariest wild thing? Definitely the crocs in the Yellow River in Kakadu, the Northern Territory. Those suckers would have jumped in the boat with us. Boy! Are they long! Know who’d win in a tussle.
That’s a cool animal to see! My oldest son loves penguins!
Ruth - Tanama Tales
I didn’t even know they existed! What a beauty. I love the power that nature has to surprise me.
They are gorgeous! I love penguins. We recently had a trip to Tasmania and went on a Penguin tour in Bicheno where we saw lots of fairy penguins. So cute they were! 🙂
We can see fairy penguins when we sale locally on the North Island, but the yellow-eyed penguins are only on the South Island.
What a beautiful experience! There really is something magical about letting nature do its thing. I’ve seen a little blue penguin out at Piha before, but usually the animals I see in the wild are our beautiful native birds.
L. Diane Wolfe
Cute little fellas. They look tiny.
I saw big horn sheep in Yellowstone when I was a kid.
Awww, what a cutie. I linked this post to my Awww Mondays post. So adorable and I’ve never seen a penguin like this until now.
Have a terrific day Rhonda. 🙂
Hi Rhonda – aren’t they amazing … and so aptly named. Nature is wonderful .. giving us so much and letting us have the brains to be able to think about and appreciate some of them. I love African animals … warthogs are my favourite – they have their tails in the air like aerials …
Lovely photos … cheers Hilary
Teresa from NanaHood
I wonder how many are left? Are they endangered? They are beautiful and no I have never seen any except on your blog! Isn’t it neat that we can learn about the world through our blogger friend’s eyes? Have a great week! Teresa
What fun to learn of the yellow eyed lil guys, I had not heard of them either, I have seen many documentaries but not of them. Karren
Alex J. Cavanaugh
I wonder how many are left in the wild?
The current estimate is about 4000 yellow eyed penguins remaining, with only about 400 breeding pairs on the mainland (South Island). This is up from 127 breeding pairs in the early 90s due to conservation efforts. They are endangered and considered to be the rarest penguins in the world. To the best of my knowledge, there are none in captivity. (I added this to the facts on the page, thanks for your question).
Very cool photos. The only penguins we see around here are in an aquarium. Probably the most interesting animals we’ve seen in the wild were the long horn sheep we saw while hiking in Glacier National Park in Montana.
That’s so cool! I think the most interesting thing I have seen in the wild are green sea turtles in Hawaii.