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Wild Wellington: World's best city for animal lovers?
Where you can swim with a hundred dolphins, have a close encounter with a "living dinosaur" and abide by little blue penguin traffic rules
In New Zealand’s capital, wildlife sightings are a part of daily life, thanks to the city's green policies and development of countless parks, nature reserves and walking tracks.
Here’s a case -- or a few cases -- for why Wellington may be the best city in the world for spotting wildlife.
Orcas and other dolphins
In February, at Wellington Harbour, 100 dolphins spent a week hanging out with residents before moving back out to sea.
Then in March, several pods of orcas came to visit the harbor as they hunted stingrays, drawing out high profile visitors, like “The Hobbit” director Sir Peter Jackson.
For rentals and tours, try Fergs Kayaks, 6 Queens Wharf, +64 (0)4 499 8898, www.fergskayaks.co.nz
New Zealand fur seal colonies can be spotted just minutes from downtown at the southern Red Rocks or on a longer day trip to eastern Cape Palliser.
While local colonies are mostly comprised of large males, the cuter sights of mothers with pups are common from August through October.
Wild horses and goats, a legacy of New Zealand’s earliest settlers, also frequent the Red Rocks.
Visit the fur seals with Seal Coast Safari, 232A Leftbank, Cuba Mall; +64 (0)4 801 6040; www.sealcoast.co.nz
Little blue penguins
Little blue penguins, the smallest penguin species in the world, can be found nesting all around the coastline of Wellington’s suburbs.
The slate-blue, flightless birds with white bellies weigh a little more than a kilogram.
The best time to see them is at dusk when the parents come home to tend to their chicks and sleep in their burrows.
Not all Wellington residents love them. While the birds may be cute, they do have the annoying habit of crawling underneath homes and making lots of noise during mating.
Visiting drivers should take note of the penguin crossing signs dotted along the coastline -- the birds often waddle across the street to reach their nests.
In an effort to allow penguins to raise their young in relative safety by the sea and eliminate the need for them to keep crossing roads, Places for Penguins, a program by the conservation group Forest and Bird and the Wellington Zoo, has placed more than 200 nesting boxes along the southern coast.
For optimal penguin viewing, walk or drive along the coastline at dusk. Be sure to observe any signage and instructions so as not to disturb nests or protected colonies
Kapiti Island Nature Reserve
Five kilometers off the western coast, Kapiti Island is New Zealand’s most important island nature reserve.
Human impact on the island is kept to a minimum to prevent introduction of pests to the closed ecosystem -- just 160 people are allowed in per day.
Visitors can access only two areas of the island and require a permit from the Department of Conservation.
Flightless kiwi, weka and takahē as well as kaka (forest parrots) and the rotund but beautiful kereru (New Zealand pigeon) are among the many bird species plentiful in the area.
Overnight stays are possible at a private lodge on the island.
Boats to the island depart from the Kapiti Boating Club at Paraparaumu Beach, an hour north by car from Wellington.
Zealandia: The Karori Sanctuary
Zealandia is a beautiful sanctuary valley located minutes from downtown.
Rare and highly endangered animals such as tuatara (a "living dinosaur" with a third eye under its reptilian skin), flightless takahē and little spotted kiwi live in the 225-hectare park. A secure fence keeps out invasive non-native species like stoats, rabbits and rats.
Birds such as the kaka and morepork (New Zealand’s only surviving native owl) fly in and out of the area freely.
Visitors can encounter friendly wildlife up close via trails open to hikers of all levels and also accessible by wheelchair.
Recommended: guided night tours to see nocturnal species, such as the kiwi.
Zealandia, End of Waiapu Road, Karori; +64 (0)4 920 9200; www.visitzealandia.com
Te Papa’s colossal squid
While dead specimens on display behind glass wouldn’t normally rate in the wildlife category, Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum, possesses an exception.
The museum’s 495-kilogram colossal squid is the only intact specimen in the world, which are shorter but much bulkier and heavier than giant squid.
Originally caught off Antarctica in 2007, the specimen is 4.2 meters long, but is believed to have been a bit larger before it was frozen during the preservation process.
Also at the museum are exhibits of moa, a group of flightless birds that grew up to 3.7 meters tall and weighed more than 227 kilograms.
Moa were then the largest flightless birds in the world before they were hunted to extinction about 600 years ago.
Te Papa, like all of New Zealand’s public museums, offers free admission.
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 55 Cable St., Wellington, New Zealand; +64 4 381 7000; 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. daily (until 9 p.m. on Thursdays)
Coming up: Ocean Exploration Centre
Wellington recently announced plans for a new NZ$36 million ($30.2 million) New Zealand Ocean Exploration Centre to be built at Lyall Bay.
The aquarium will feature the largest undersea viewing window in the southern hemisphere, and lead visitors through reefs, a sunken ship, a whale skeleton and a jellyfish tunnel before bringing them back to the surface.