West to east, north to south, the West Coast is a haven for native wildlife, some so rare that they are not found anywhere else in New Zealand or the world. Stretching almost the full length of the South Island’s western coast, with 600km of beaches, bordered on the east by the highest mountain ranges and encompassing six national parks, the West Coast is indisputably New Zealand’s most diverse and ecologically rich region.
And, with a vast well-developed network of wilderness tracks and trails for all levels of walking — from easy, short tracks for family outings to day, overnight and multi-day walking trails, there are many ways to explore the landscape and the intriguing wildlife that inhabits these places.
Wherever you travel, a guided tour with a local expert will provide the best opportunity to find and see wildlife in their natural surroundings so here are a few of the best eco adventures to find on the West Coast.
For variety and opportunity to encounter some of New Zealand’s rarest wildlife, it would be hard to beat the friendly little coastal settlement of Ōkārito, north of Franz Josef. This place is a wilderness gem and wildlife haven where rainforest meets coastal wetlands and wild beaches. With kayak and boat tours, and a range of walking tracks, there are plenty of activities to choose from.
Ōkārito Lagoon is New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland — home to an incredible 76 species of native birds including kōtuku/white heron and royal spoonbills — and the best way to explore this beautiful environment and observe wildlife is by water.
Take a slow 2-hour cruise across the usually tranquil glassy waters with Okarito Boat Eco Tours to see kōtuku/white heron, godwits, oystercatchers and dotterels feeding in the waterways through the wetlands. Owner/guides Swade and Paula are highly experienced guides who know this environment well and have many great wildlife and conservation stories to tell. The flat-bottomed, open air boat is perfect for cruising and, on a clear day, there are magnificent backdrops of Aoraki/Mount Cook, Mt. Tasman and Franz Josef Glacier. Catch one of several daily tours, or take an extra early bird tour during summer (November to early January).
Getting there: Turn off SH6, 15km north of Franz Josef Township, and a further 13km on to Ōkārito.
Okarito Kayaks offers a choice of guided tours or independent paddling on Ōkārito Lagoon. There’s the chance to see rare birdlife including the kōtuku/white heron, set against the spectacular Southern Alps backdrop that includes New Zealand’s two highest peaks, Aoraki/Mt Cook and Mt Tasman. Overnight kayak hires are available for anyone wanting a wilderness camping experience (you may hear the rare Ōkārito rowi kiwi in the night). Okarito Kayaks’ red sheds are also renowned for some of the best coffee and baking on the ‘Coast.
Waitangiroto Nature Reserve, near Whataroa and north of Franz Josef, is New Zealand’s only nesting site for the rare kōtuku/white heron, considered sacred in Māori lore. There are only 150 of these elegant white birds left in New Zealand and, although they can be found living in various parts of the country during winter, they always return to the banks of the Waitangiroto River for breeding.
The birds are at their most spectacular with their long, lacy plumage displayed for mating during the summer nesting season (September to March). A pair produces an average of three eggs per season, and both parents spend time incubating on their rough nests of sticks and twigs.
White Heron Sanctuary Tours, a fifth generation family business based in Whataroa, has 30 years guiding experience and is the only DOC-approved tour operating in remote Waitangiroto Nature Reserve. There are several departures daily for the 2.5 hour guided tour which includes transport from Whataroa to a private viewing hide on the riverbank. The royal spoonbill and the little shag also nest there, and the surrounding kahikatea rainforest is home to many other forest birds. The Rainforest Nature Tour operates outside of the breeding season.
Getting there: Find White Heron Sanctuary Tours on SH6, 30km drive north of Franz Josef Township.
While the glaciers — Franz Josef and Fox — are the top attractions in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, there is so much more to see and explore in this pristine glacier country extending from snow capped peaks down to the Tasman Sea.
Between the mountains and the beaches, there are lowland rainforests, grasslands, lakes, rivers and wetlands to discover.
Ōkārito-based Glacier Valley Eco Tours offer a series of fully guided nature tours and walks in varied spectacular landscapes, ranging from shorter or day walks up the glacier valleys to early morning and sunset rainforest wildlife tours, photography excursions and family-friendly outings. Tours include the opportunity to give-back to nature with tree plantings for the Ōkārito restoration project.
Local owner/guides Cliff and Tash, and their team of local guides are experienced and knowledgeable about nature and the local history of the places they go, and know how to tailor experiences for their guests. They also come prepared with refreshments, extra boots, rain jackets and umbrellas when required.
Getting there: Turn off from SH6, 15km north of Franz Josef Township, and a further 13km on to Ōkārito.
The curious comings and goings of the tāiko or Westland petrel — a seabird endemic to the West Coast — are the star attraction at a private wildlife sanctuary near the Punakaiki coast.
The petrel is a large black pelagic seabird, one of more than 100 species, about half of which are found in New Zealand and includes the royal albatross. It is the largest mainland burrow-nesting petrel and breeding is limited to a few colonies between Punakaiki and Barrytown. Before the arrival of humans on Aotearoa, there were many species and millions of petrel living here, making it one of the most populous bird species.
Paparoa Nature Tours offer sunrise and sunset tours in their private sanctuary. The birds are nocturnal on land and are most active during sunset when going off to sea and at sunrise returning to their burrows. The burrows are located under a coastal forest canopy and it’s a spectacular wildlife experience watching the ungainly (at least, on land) seabirds launch themselves into the air or come crash landing back down through the trees beside the public viewing stand.
Te Wahipounamu - South West New Zealand is a precious slice of Aotearoa New Zealand, recognised as an UNESCO World Heritage Area for its extraordinary natural and cultural attributes. It incorporates the national parks of Fiordland, Westland Tai Poutini, Mount Aspiring and Aoraki Mount Cook.
Tucked inside the World Heritage Area, Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki is another national treasure — a luxury eco destination offering an intimate wilderness experience with nature tours led by expert guides including owner /host and noted conservationist Gerry McSweeney. The surrounding lake, river, rainforest and beaches are a sanctuary for rare wildlife such as tawaki / Fiordland crested penguins, tiny Hector’s dolphins, NZ fur seals, forest and marine birdlife.
Tawaki — recognisable by their distinctive facial plumage — are only seen in the South Island’s southwest corner, and more easily than anywhere else around Lake Moeraki. Lodge guests can walk an unmarked trail to a spectacular beach to watch the penguins make their way from the Tasman Sea to their nests in the coastal rainforest.
Getting there: Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki is on SH6, 90km south of Fox Glacier township.
A series of unspoiled coastal beauty spots lie just beyond the view of SH6 as the road travels south from the glaciers towards Haast. Keep an eye out for signposts indicating easy walking tracks leading to some unbelievably photogenic landscapes — a dune lake, rugged cliffs, pristine beaches, native forest and always with the possibility of wildlife encounters.
The Monro Beach Walk — just north of Knights Point — is a short walk (1.5 hr, 4.7km return) through luxuriant temperate forest onto a remote beach where the only locals are the rare tawaki crested penguins. Watch them in the surf and on the sand but take care not to disturb them.
At Ship Creek Tauparikaka two short walks reveal a pristine, towering rainforest and a vast expanse of sand dunes — a glimpse back into what this region looked like before humans arrived. The Kahikatea Swamp Forest Walk (800m, 20 min return) follows Ship Creek through dense swamp forest of kahikatea (white pine), New Zealand’s tallest tree. The Dune Lake Walk (1km, 30 mins loop) crosses sand dunes and via dense stunted coastal forest to the dune lake and an expansive sweep of coastline.
These walks are signposted off SH6 between Haast to Lake Paringa. Monro Beach is near Lake Moeraki, 30km north of Haast. Ship Creek Tauparikaka is 20km north of Haast.