Meet the Marine Mammals of New Zealand


New Zealand attracts a wealth of adventurous travellers with its dramatic landscapes and diverse geography, but it is not just the scenery that makes it such a popular destination. An extensive range of wildlife inhabits the country, including rare birds, reptiles and, of course, some beautiful and unique marine life.

Here are some of the most common marine mammals nature lovers may see while on wildlife tours of New Zealand.

Fur Seals

The Fur Seal (Arctocephalus forsteri), often referred to as Kekeno, is the country’s most common seal, and their population is continuing to increase. The seals can be seen around the rocky shores of the mainland as well as in certain parts of Australia and the Chatham Islands. Occasionally the animals have also been found in the streets and people’s back gardens – despite this anomaly, they tend to prefer their own company and do not generally enjoy human interaction.

The animal can be distinguished from a sea lion as it is smaller in size and has a pointier nose. The Fur Seals have long whiskers, dark grey coats and can weigh between 90 and 150kg (adult males). Their large hind flippers allow them to move quickly on land and in water and Fur Seals can dive to an incredible 238m depth.

Sperm Whales

Sperm Whales (Physeter macrocephalus) are easily identified when seen in the open ocean due to their regular angled ‘blows’ out of the water. They are a purplish/grey in colour and have a white underbelly. Their square-shaped head makes up about a third of their body length (11-18m), and they have short, rounded dorsal fins.

The main Sperm Whale population can be found in Kaikoura and there have been sightings of up to 85 at one time. However, the whales are widespread around the world, generally preferring deeper waters. Their diet consists mainly of squid, but they also eat other large prey such as rays and demersal fish (those that feed at the bottom of the ocean). The whales often use clicks to locate and even stun their prey.

Hector’s Dolphin

Hector’s Dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori) is endemic to New Zealand and is one of the world’s smallest marine dolphins. They grow to just 1.5m in length, weigh between 40 and 60kg and live for up to 20 years. These cetaceans have a rounded black dorsal fin and black and white markings covering their grey bodies.

Like other dolphins, these mammals use echolocation – clicks bouncing off surrounding objects – to find their food. These high-frequency clicks give them a detailed picture of their surroundings, allowing them to work out where their prey is and deftly catch it.

New Zealand Wildlife Tours

To encounter these fascinating creatures up close and personal, wildlife tours are the most fulfilling and successful way of experiencing multiple sightings. Specialist nature companies provide detailed and immersive itineraries for animal lovers around the coastline of New Zealand, allowing groups to witness these beautiful animals thriving in their natural habitats.

Author Plate Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in birds. With a passionate interest in rare avian species, Marissa chooses the expert-led wildlife tours organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of flora and fauna in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.