Even in a country known for its dramatic scenery and amazing wildlife, the Otago Peninsula stands out. Located on New Zealand's South Island, the peninsula was born of volcanic eruptions that created steep mountains and rugged sea cliffs. It's a hot spot for marine wildlife viewing -- seals, sea lions, elephant seals and, of course, penguins. Here it's possible to see both the little penguin and the rare yellow-eyed penguin.
A number of tour operators on the peninsula are committed to environmental education and sustainable ecotourism. Nature Guides Otago offers naturalist-led tours as well as lodging that emphasize sustainability and support penguin habitat restoration and conservation.
Another option is Penguin Place, a conservation reserve on a private farm. Visitors begin the tour by learning about penguin conservation efforts before proceeding to a series of trenches and observation huts. From these vantage points, they are treated to up-close views of a yellow-eyed penguin colony while minimizing disturbances to the birds, which live in coastal forests and have suffered significant habitat loss from logging.
Nature Guides Otago, a sunrise tour of a yellow-eyed penguin colony, maximum six people, runs U.S. $75 per person. Nature packages, which include two nights at a B&B cottage, sunrise penguin tour and a daylong tour of the Otago Peninsula, run $540 per person. Note that tour priority is given to those staying at the cottage.
Penguin Place, penguin tours run throughout the day. Price is U.S. $41 for adults and $10 for children. Budget accommodations are available at the Penguin Place Lodge for U.S. $22 adults, $8.50 children
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
It comes as a surprise to most travelers that a trip to the Galapagos could include the chance to see penguins. But in fact, the islands are home to the only penguin that lives in a tropical climate. Unlike other species that migrate according to the season, endangered Galapagos penguins live here year-round, especially in the colder waters of the western islands such as Isla Isabela.
Almost any tour of the Galapagos includes the chance to see an incredible variety of wildlife, but some operators specifically offer penguin tours. More likely than not you'll be observing the birds from a boat, but if the tour includes snorkeling in an area frequented by penguins, there's a chance that you could end up swimming with the birds.
Southern Exploration, a member of the International Ecotourism Society, is one tour operator that offers the chance to see penguins at close range. However, since the Galapagos National Park Service restricts tourists to specific areas and may limit access depending on conditions, it's best to contact tour operators directly to confirm that you'll be able to see penguins on your trip. Talk through the options carefully with the booking agent to make sure your expectations will be met.
Southern Explorations, four to 15-day Galapagos cruising tours with an English-speaking guide, start at around U.S. $3,000 up to about $6,000, including the flight from Quito to the Galapagos. Ask to speak to a Galapagos expert and tell them you are interested in seeing penguins so they can find an appropriate tour during your travel dates. Avoid holiday travel unless you book a year or more in advance -- tours around Christmas and Easter fill up fast.