Auckland and Waikato on New Zealand’s North Island allow people of all ages to get up close with its whales, glowworms, and kiwi birds, animals unique to the country. Tourism New Zealand invited InClover to join the experience.
AUCKLAND WHALE AND DOLPHIN SAFARI,
HAMILTON & WAIKATO TOURISM, RANDY MULYANTO
♦ Marine Wildlife
Priding itself as New Zealand’s only research-based marine mammal experience, the Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari escorts the public out across the 4,000 square kilometers of Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf Marine Park.
To witness its wildlife, I took the safari’s two-level Dolphin Explorer boat from Viaduct Harbour in downtown Auckland and asked why we would only be visiting a limited area.
We want to respect the animals,” said Catherine Lea, Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari’s research and conservation officer. “We operate a 4.5-hour tour every day at 2:30 p.m. to limit the interaction with the marine animals. When dolphins have babies, we restrict coming to the area because dolphins do not feed as much while there are ships around. Sometimes, we do conduct two tours in a day”.
The Dolphin Explorer regularly meets common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, Bryde’s whales, and orcas living in the area all year round and has already categorized 2,500 individual dolphins, identified by the different dorsal fins and pigments of layers in the area. It is estimated that there are roughly 10,000 dolphins around the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park.
The biggest chance of finding whales and dolphins is by observing the feeding behavior of the Australasian gannets, a bird species with a lot of colonies in New Zealand. The whales and dolphins can often be spotted once the fish and plankton—the gannets food of choice—appear on the water.
After almost four hours on the boat, I finally saw the gannets flying low over the water. The dolphins soon appeared, swimming in the clear waters but I wasn’t lucky enough to see the whales and orcas. It’s worth pointing out that my time on the boat wasn’t extended and it may even be shortened if all animals are seen before the time is up.
♦ Glowworm Cave
South of Auckland can be found the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, the habitat of Arachnocampa luminosa a glowworm species exclusive to New Zealand, and the cave is an ideal place for the glowworms because of its dampness. It was found by a local Maori chief, Tane Tinorau, and English surveyor Fred Mace in 1887. The chief, with an eye for an opportunity, then opened the cave for tourism.
Approximately eighty percent of the staff here are descendants of Tane Tinorau. 75 percent of the cave ownership currently belongs to the Maori community after the government handed the cave back to its original owners. By 2026, the Maoris will have a full local tribal ownership after a claim was made to the Waitangi Tribunal.
Our guide, Glenn Waretini, took us inside the dimly-lit cave for a 45-minute tour of the limestone formations that are estimated to be about 30 million years old. The Cathedral, the cave’s highest point, is around 15 meters from the ground to the ceiling. It is another 30 to 40 meters from the ceiling to the top of the cave and it is worth knowing that a cubic meter of stalactite takes hundreds of years to grow. The name Cathedral seemingly reflects the Tribal weddings and musical performances that have been held here in the past.
Glenn then led us next to the very bottom of the cave, known as the Glowworm Grotto. Despite the pitch-black surroundings, I boarded a slow boat and was soon amazed by the blue glow above me.
“The burning of its waste product creates the worm’s glow” Glenn said. Produced during the larval stage of the glowworm, the glowing effect is constantly happening due to its slow digestive tract. It also uses its bioluminescent ability to attract insects for food. The more insects the glowworms catch, the more burning. Glenn was quick to warn us, however, that too much noise could make the lights go off.
♦ Kiwi House
I took a 15 to 20-minute drive from the Waitomo Glowworm Caves to see the country’s signature bird which, even though it is New Zealand’s national bird, the kiwi is actually endangered due to effects of bush clearing and possums. The Otorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park keeps 25 kiwi birds and helps to incubate the eggs in captivity and release the kiwis into the wild once they reach two years of age.
The kiwi, surprisingly, lays an egg nearly as big as its body. “When the little chick comes out, it’s fully developed,” said Greta Hone, one of the kiwi keepers there, referring to why the egg is of that size. It takes 70 to 80 days to hatch an egg, and all body parts are complete once the egg hatches.
I went to the nocturnal room to see a Tasman, a Great Spotted Kiwi that is the largest of the kiwi species. The room was dark with only dim lightning since kiwis are nocturnal and I was told that the Tasman can sleep up to 20 hours a day.
Of interest to visitors are the kiwi feeding talks at 10:30am, 1:30pm, and 3:30pm which involve a 10-minute talk and a 5-minute feeding session. A kiwi’s diet is made up of fresh, live worms and insects but they will also take meat, fruit, vegetables, and nutrient powders. Another kiwi keeper, Katie Davison, told me that the diet provides all the nutrients they need.
Other than the kiwis the bird park also hosts kakariki, a bird that lives high up in the dense forests and which is also known as ‘small green parrot’ in Maori. I saw the yellow-crowned species which is smaller than other native New Zealand parakeets.
► Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari:
To secure a place at the Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari, head to the New Zealand Maritime Museum at Quay Street, Viaduct Harbour. The price for adults is NZD$180 each, while children aged 15 and under are NZD$125 each. A family price for two adults and two children is available at NZD$460 and online booking is possible.
In the unlikely event that there are no sightings of marine animals, it is possible to take the safari another day for free.
► Getting to Waitomo Glowworm Caves:
New Zealand’s bus network InterCity operates a bus from Auckland to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. It departs Sky City Bus Terminal, 102 Hobson St., at 7:30 a.m and arrives at the outside entrance of the Waitomo Glowworm Caves Visitor Centre at 10:10 a.m.
The bus fare is NZD$113 and takes around 2 hours and 40 minutes in duration plus there is a NZD$3.99 fee if the booking is made online.
► Getting around Waikato and Beyond:
Carrington Tours is a Hamilton-based local family business offering personalized transportation and tour services around Waikato, Otorohanga, and other cities in New Zealand. It offers vans for 11, Chryslers for 4, and Limousines for 9 guests.
Pricing depends on the number of people, days, time, and activities planned. The price set per person and day includes lunch, entrance fees, and tours.
► Waitomo Glowworm Caves:
A Waitomo Glowworm Caves ticket costs NZD$51 for an adult and NZD$23.50 for a child. A Family Pass for 2 adults and 2 children aged 4 to 14 is available at NZD$127. Children under 4 are free of charge and online booking is possible.
A tour is held every 30 minutes each day. Between April 1 and October 30, tours are held from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. From October 31 to March 31, tours start from 9 a.m. and end at 4 p.m.
► Otorohanga Kiwi House:
For a self-guided tour, Otorohanga Kiwi House tickets cost NZD$24 per adult and NZD$8 for a child aged 5 to 15. It also offers a family self-guided tour at NZD$59 that allows entry for 2 adults and 3 children aged 5 to 15. Children under 5 years old are free of charge.
Otorohanga Kiwi House is open every day, except Christmas Day. It opens at 9:00 a.m. and closes at 5:00 p.m., with the last admission at 4:30 p.m.