Malborough Sounds is one of New Zealand’s natural wonders. With many beautiful valleys surrounded by water rich in nutrients, the Sounds are full of thriving wildlife. Fur seals, dolphins, and sea birds frequent and live in the area, as well as seasonal whales that cross the periphery of the Sounds.
In Picton, a tour operator, Dolphins Watch & Nature Tours offers you the chance to explore and experience the beautiful nature of the Sounds, as well as giving you a bit of history on the area.
Get up-close with dolphins
Dolphins Watch & Nature Tours offers four types of tours daily. One of the most popular tours is the Swimming With Dolphins tour. Departing daily (8.15 AM check-in time), wet suits, fins, and snorkels are provided and there is a shower facility at the tour operator’s headquarter. During the trip, the boat will stop when dolphins are spotted and if they show signs of interest, swimming will be allowed.
If you do not feel like swimming, you have an option of viewing dolphins from the boat, whereby the swimming price is deducted from your ticket price. The boat has a front viewing deck as well as seating in the back so you can enjoy the view all around. The tour lasts two to four hours, depending on the time it takes to find dolphins and if a swim is possible. The ticket price for a swim with dolphins is 165 NZD (approx 110.22 USD) and 99 NZD for dolphin viewing (approx 66.13 USD). Note that the swimming tour is available daily between April to October.
Penguins and bird sanctuary
During the afternoon, Dolphins Watch & Nature Tours offers three tours: Motuara Island & Marine Wildlife, Historic Ship’s Cove, and Birdwatcher’s Expedition. If you want to see a variation of wildlife, the tour to Motuara Island is the best option, as the boat will make several stops along the way to the bird sanctuary if wildlife is spotted. At the same time, you may see the little blue penguins up-close on Motuara Island.
On the way to Motuara, you may encounter fur seals and gannets. You are also likely to see the king shag, one of the world’s rarest birds. There are about 800 of them in the wild and Malborough Sounds is the only northernmost place that you can see them. Dolphins are also likely to be spotted during the tour and they might even swim alongside the boat.
Before reaching Motuara, the boat will make a short stop at a salmon farm where seals are known to be notorious thieves, jumping over fences to feast on the farmed salmons. Arriving at Motuara, visitors can access the island via a pier. A few wooden boxes are laid across the island. Initially, these boxes were intended to house kiwis. However, the little blue penguins, another inhabitant of the island, have taken over these boxes and turned them into little cozy homes. Some boxes are located higher up the island and it is quite amazing that some penguins make a big effort to travel from the sea up to the box several times a day. Sometimes, when you open one of the boxes, you might find a penguin inside. Be respectful and avoid loud noises so you would not scare the birds.
Motuara is also home to rowi, the world’s rarest kiwi bird. With only no more than 400 left in the wild, Motuara Island is used as a habitat to raise young rowi kiwis since the island is pest-free. Once the birds are big enough to fend off predators such as stoats, they will be relocated to Okarito, their native home on the West coast of New Zealand’s South Island.
The guided walk to the top of the island where the viewing point is located takes about half an hour to forty minutes. The walk does not require a good level of fitness and the view of Queen Charlotte sounds from above is absolutely stunning. The tour costs 99 NZD per person or 66.13 USD and it lasts approximately four hours. The tour is available all year round and departs from Picton daily at 1.30 pm.
Both tours offer warm beverages such as hot chocolate, tea, and coffee as well as cookies on board.
Things to keep in mind
The sea in the area is quite sheltered from rougher winds due to the Sounds’ valleys but if you get seasick very easily, you may want to take some motion sickness tablets. There is a toilet in the boat but guests are asked not to use the bathroom when the boat is docked or when next to wild animals.
As with any wildlife experiences, there is a chance that you do not spot dolphins, or the animals may not be interested in interacting but it is worth to take the chance. The tour boasts a very high rate of dolphin spotting.
Why you should go on the tours when in Picton
The crew are very experienced and Tristan, the guide is very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the local wildlife. If you have half a day or a day to spend in Picton, going on one of these tours is highly recommended and the trip is still enjoyable even if you run into showers.