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Marlborough Sounds Cruise: Exploring Wildlife in the Ocean and on Motuara Island

Last updated : June 3rd, 2019

the view from motuara island

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This blog is a complete guide to going on a Marlborough Sounds Cruise including our own personal experience as well as important information to know before you book!

Marlborough Sounds Cruise

Dan and I ventured out on a Marlborough Sounds boat cruise the other day in hopes to see some amazing scenery and wildlife – and that’s exactly what we got! We saw tons of different birds and even explored Motuara Sanctuary Island. It was a day to remember and in this blog, I’m going to tell you exactly why that is!

The Marlborough Sounds is a gorgeous region at the top of the South Island. Valleys that were carved by rivers thousands of years ago are now covered in water from the Pacific ocean.

These valleys and various islands make the Marlborough Sound one of the most picturesque regions in New Zealand! Knowing this, we just had to go on a Marlborough Sounds cruise for ourselves and see the region from out on the water!

The Marlborough Sounds are a beautiful region!
The Marlborough Sounds are a beautiful region!

This blog includes information on our own personal experience on the Marlborough Sounds Cruise, as well as some general information about the tour itself, the tour provider, and how to prepare if you want to go for yourself!

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What Our Day Looked Like

Our tour started at 1 pm right n the centre of Picton. For those of you who don’t know, Picton is the most convenient location for exploring the Marlborough Sounds as it is where the ferries depart and arrive from Wellington. It is the main town in the Marlborough Sounds and an easy place to explore from!

marlborough sounds cruise from picton
The waterfront in Picton.

Right after checking in we were ready to get on the boat! It was a beautiful sunny day and the water was calm and as blue as can be! I couldn’t wait to take in the sunshine on the boat and hopefully see some wildlife along the way!

Wildlife we Saw on the Water

When we first set off we started seeing some seabirds within minutes! The first birds we saw were the Australasian Gannets. These birds are massive and one of the most beautiful birds in the sounds. We saw these birds on a few different occasions throughout the day as they soared high above our heads.

australasian gannett
An Australasian Gannet!

While on the boat we also saw a pair of King Shags hanging out on a rock. Our guide told us how rare it is to see one Kind Shag, let along two! Apparently, these rare birds can only be found in the Marlborough Sounds and there are only 600 or so left! We got to have a good look at these birds as the boat driver got us pretty close to them while they were perched on a rock.

Also perched, or rather slouched, on rocks were NZ fur seals. During our boat ride, we saw 3 different seals! One, in particular, was showing off and posing for us, while another one was enjoying an afternoon nap. Dan and I have seen NZ fur seals before at Tauranga Bay Fur Seal Colony, but from the boat ride here in the Marlborough Sounds we were able to get much closer and have a better look at the seals.

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seal on a Marlborough sounds cruise
Just look at that cutie!

We also saw lots of Fluttering Shearwater birds along the boat ride to the island. These little birds are very entertaining to watch as they dive into the water and they fly off smacking their wings against the surface of the water.

fluttering shearwater bird marlborough sounds
So many birds!

Our Special Surprise Guests On Board

Dan and I basically hit the tourist jackpot on our Marlborough Sounds cruise because there were two special guests aboard during our tour – two little Rowi Kiwis! For those of you who don’t know, Kiwis are little birds native only to New Zealand. They are a symbol of the country and are extremely rare to see (except for on certain isolated islands.) Dan and I had never seen a Kiwi before so we were very excited to have two on the boat with us!

rowi baby kiwi
Rowi Kiwis are SOOOO cute!

The Department of Conservation was bringing these Kiwis to Motuara Island and were using our tour boat as their method of transport. These little Kiwis get taken out to Motuara Island so they can grow big and strong. Once they are full size, the Department of Conservation then transports the Kiwis back to their homes on the mainland. Motuara Island is a bird sanctuary, meaning there are no predators for the birds. Without predators, the Kiwis have a much better chance of surviving. This process is something the Department of Conservation is doing in order to increase the number of Kiwis in New Zealand.

Our tour provider, E-Ko Tours, works very closely with the Department of Conservation which is why they came on our boat out to Motuara Island. The best part was that while on the boat, one of the ladies from the Department of Conservation took the Kiwis out to put their tracker bracelets on. While doing this, we all got to watch and she told us about the Kiwis as well as their efforts to save them. It was an incredible experience being so close to the Kiwis as well as hearing about the DOC’s efforts.

doc tagging a kiwi
A lady from the Department of Conservation, putting a tracking bracelet on a Kiwi

It was a day I surely won’t forget anytime soon!

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Exploring Motuara Island

Our destination on the boat was Motuara Island. It took us about 1.5 hours to get there and once on the island we were taken on a guided walking tour up to a lookout. Along the walking tour, we spotted a few other birds including a couple of Bell Birds, several South Island Robins, as well as an NZ Wood Pigeon. We hoped to see Little Blue Penguins but didn’t have luck with it on this particular occasion.

The walk only took about 30 minutes with stops along the way as our guide explained about the birds and plants we were seeing. At the top of Motuara Island, there is a lookout up on a platform offering a 360-degree view of the Marlborough Sounds, it was breathtaking!

the view from motuara island
The view from Motuara Island

Treats on the Boat

After returning to the boat we had just under an hour ride back to Picton. Along the way, we were offered tea, coffee, hot, chocolate and cookies. Then shortly after that, we were offered white wine and mussels! It was a spectacular way to end a fabulous tour!

selfie on motuara island
We had the best day!


About the Tour

We went on the Motuara Island Wildlife Tour offered by E-Ko Tours.

The entire tour took about 4 hours. It started at 1:30 right in the centre of Picton and returned to the same place.

The tour included a 1.5-hour Marlborough Sound Crusie for spotting wildlife on the way to Motuara Island, a guided walk on Motuara Island, and then a return trip back on the boat complete with drinks and snacks!

Expect to pay about $100 for this same tour, but prices do change seasonally so be sure to check out their website here for the latest price and updates! E-Ko Tours also offers a range of Marlborough Sounds Tours so be sure to choose the right one for you!

map of the marlborough sounds cruise route
Map of the area. On our chosen cruise, we went all the way out to Motuara Island!

Our Choice of Marlborough Sounds Cruise

When visiting the Marlborough Sounds, there are a few different companies and tour to choose from. For Dan and I, seeing wildlife as well as the scenery was important for us. We also wanted to choose a reputable company both in terms of the quality of tours they provide, as well as their impact on the environment. E-Ko tours ticked all the boxes and their Motuara Island Sanctuary Tour was the right choice for us!

Of course, the type of tour you choose for a Marlborough Sounds Cruise should be based mostly on what you are hoping to get out of the day, but if wildlife, as well as scenery, is your goal then consider booking the same tour we did!

To check out the different tours E-Ko Tours offers, as well as to book, click here!

eko tours

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Know Before You Go!

If you want to go on a Marlborough Sounds cruise for yourself, here are some tips to know before you go!

  • Book your tour in advance – in the summer months tours can fill quickly so consider booking in advance to avoid disappointment
  • Be sun smart – the New Zealand sun is harsh, so ensure you wear sunscreen and a hat to be prepared for a sunny day out on the water!
  • Pack water – on the boat they do have some drinking water but it is best if you bring your own.
  • Have your camera charged and ready to go – you will absolutely want to take some photos to remember your day out cruising on the Marlborough Sounds!
  • Have fun – no matter what wildlife you see, a Marlborough Sounds cruise is guaranteed to be a great way to spend a few hours!

For us, the wildlife Marlborough Sounds cruise was one of our favourite things we did on the South Island! It was fun, exciting, and an enjoyable afternoon that we would highly recommend to anybody travelling that way!

Don’t forget to read about some of our other favourite experience in New Zealand including Kayaking in Milford Sound, exploring waterfalls in the Catlins, hiking in Queenstown, and exploring Mount Cook National Park!


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About the Author - destinationlesstravel

We are Dan and Bailey, just your typical thrill-seeking travelers! You will likely find us hiking, scuba diving, catching public transport, or just drinking beer at a hostel.

2 Replies to “Marlborough Sounds Cruise: Exploring Wildlife in the Ocean and on Motuara Island”

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