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 penguin. 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. As of the 2018/2019 summer, there were only 225 mating pairs remaining on mainland New Zealand.
Hoiho is 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 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.
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Katiki Point Lighthouse and hike
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 10 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 14-150 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 spotted a New Zealand fur seal (Kekeno), then 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 south-east 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.
Booking tips for your New Zealand travel planning
First time visitors start here: New Zealand travel guide.
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