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Marlborough Sounds Cruise: Guide to the Marlborough Sounds

Last updated : February 11th, 2020

A seal in the Marlborough Sounds


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


The Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand 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.

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.

These valleys and various islands make the Marlborough Sounds 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!

This blog includes information on our own personal experience on a Marlborough Sounds cruise, the best Marlborough Sounds cruises available, as well as some general information about the tour and how to prepare if you want to go for yourself!

About the Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

A seal sits on a rock in the Marlborough Sounds on our Marlborough Sounds cruise.
Just look at that cutie!

The Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand are located at the very tip of the South Island and cover over 4,000 square kilometers. The Marlborough Sounds were created by rivers and rising sea levels which have left many islands in the sounds.

The most popular way to explore the Marlborough Sounds is via scenic and wildlife cruises from the town of Picton. These cruises take you to various parts of the sounds to view wildlife and enjoy incredible views!

The Marlborough Sounds are well known for its wildlife and you can see dolphins, whales, seals, and some of the rarest bird species in the world including the Rough-faced Shag who only lives in the Marlborough Sounds.

One sad fact about the Marlborough Sounds is that it used to be commonplace for whaling in New Zealand, in fact, there were many whaling stations around the sounds. Luckily this has all stopped and now the Marlborough Sounds are a protected area with several predator-free islands used to raise Kiwi Birds and other endangered species.

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4 BEST Marlborough Sounds Cruises

The view of the Queens Charlotte Sound from Picton, New Zealand
Staring out into the Marlborough Sounds in Picton

In the Marlborough Sounds, there are many different cruise options you can choose from. Below are a few of the best and why you should or shouldn’t do them!

All of these cruises leave from Picton and they are the most top-rated cruises available in the Marlborough Sounds.

1. Dolphin Watching & Island Wildlife Sanctuary Cruise

The first cruise available is a really good option. The Dolphin Watching & Island Wildlife Sanctuary Cruise is the total package that takes visitors to enjoy the Marlborough Sounds’ unique and interesting wildlife with an expert guide. On this cruise, you can see all of the wildlife mentioned above depending on the day!

This tour includes a 3-hour cruise as well as a 1 hour guided walk on Motuara Island Bird Sanctuary. This island is a predator-free island and home to Kiwi birds and Blue penguins as well as a range of other native bird species.

This is the Marlborough Sounds cruise I did and I loved it! However, it is the most expensive at $129 NZD so that’s really the only negative about the cruise.

2. Marlborough Sounds and Ship Cove Cruise

The next cruise is the perfect option for those on a budget and is the cheapest cruise in the Marlborough Sounds at only $87 NZD per person.

The Marlborough Sounds and Ship Cove Cruise does much the same as the above however it won’t visit Motuara Island Bird Sanctuary and instead visit Ship Cove where Captian Cook anchored when he came to the Marlborough Sounds.

On this cruise, you can still see and range of wildlife and get 30 minutes of free time to explore Ship Cove. However, you won’t visit a predator-free island and your comentary will come from your captain, not a guide.

Two birds sit on a rock in the Marlborough Sounds

3. Queen Charlotte Sound Mail Boat Cruise from Picton

The Queen Charlotte Sound Mail Boat Cruise is almost identical to the above cruise however this cruise is slightly more unique as it’s actually aboard the working New Zealand Rural Post delivery boat.

On the tour, you’ll cruise the sounds in search of wildlife the same as with the two cruises above, but then you’ll take a small detour to deliver mail to local residents and school kids.

It’s then off to Ship Cove for 30 minutes of free time before another cruise back to Picton. This cruise is a good option but it is slightly more expensive than the Ship Cove cruise and does almost the same route (except for the mail drop off.)

4. Marlborough Sounds kayaking tour

So this last option isn’t exactly a cruise but it’s still a great way to explore the Marlborough Sounds! This full-day Marlborough Sounds kayaking tour is a really good option for those who love adventure.

From a kayak, you’ll explore the Queen Charlotte Sound getting really close to amazing wildlife. These tours are very flexible and include a beach landing to enjoy an awesome lunch on a remote beach.

The tour is a full-day excursion and includes lunch for only $135 NZD. To me, that’s great value!

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Our Marlborough Sounds Cruise

selfie on motuara island, Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand
We had the best day!

If you liked the sound of the Dolphin Watching & Island Wildlife Sanctuary Cruise then keep reading for a detailed look at what we did, what we saw and what you can expect!

Our wildlife cruise

Australasian Gannet fly's through the Marlborough Sounds
An Australasian Gannett!

When we first set off we started seeing beautiful 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 Marlborough Sounds. We saw them on a few different occasions throughout the day as they soared high above our heads.

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 King Shag, let alone two!

Apparently, these rare birds can only be found in the Marlborough Sounds and there are only 600 or so left! This was a really awesome but sad experience and we really hope their numbers increase!

A New Zealand Fur Seal sleeps on a rock in the Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand
A New Zealand Fur Seal sleeps on a rock in the Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

Also perched, or rather slouched, on around the Marlborough Sounds were New Zealand 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 and on a Milford Sound cruise 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.

fluttering shearwater bird marlborough sounds
So many birds!

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.

Our Special Surprise Guests On Board

rowi baby kiwi
Rowi Kiwis are SOOOO cute!

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!

The Department of Conservation was bringing these Kiwis to Motuara Island and 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 almost 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.

Fact: Only 5% of Kiwi birds make it to adulthood in the wild because of predators. However, using the island the number is increased to almost 80%.

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

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.

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

Exploring Motuara Island

the view from motuara island
The view from Motuara Island

Our final destination on our Marlborough Sounds boat cruise 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 on this particular occasion.

A Robin on Motuara Island, Marlborough Sounds, NZ
A Robin on Motuara Island, Marlborough Sounds, NZ

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!

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 Marlborough Sounds mussels! It was a spectacular way to end a fabulous tour!

Book the same Malborough Sounds tour as us online here!

About our Marlborough Sounds Tour

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

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 center 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 1-hour return cruise back on the boat complete with drinks and snacks!

Expect to pay about $129 for this same tour, but prices do change seasonally. E-Ko Tours also offers a range of Marlborough Sounds Tours so be sure to choose the right one for you!

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Choosing a Marlborough Sounds Cruise

eko tours

When visiting the Marlborough Sounds, there are a few different cruises to choose from. For Dan and I, seeing wildlife as well as the scenery was important for us. We also really wanted to visit Motuara Island as this is a super unique place to explore.

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!

Know Before You Go!

Views of the Marlborough Sounds from our cruise

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
  • Wear comfortable footwear – most tours involve some sort of short walk not to mention walking around the boat. Enclosed footwear is a great idea.
  • 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!

Where to Stay in the Malborough Sounds (Picton)

picton yacht club in picton
Photo Credit- Picton Yacht Club

Cruises of the Malborough Sounds depart from a town called Picton. If you’re wanting to go on a Marlborough Sounds cruise you’re likely going to need a place to stay the night in Picton.

Some great places to stay in Picton are:

Budget – Fat Cod Backpackers

This hostel is a great option for anyone on a tight budget visiting Picton and the Marlborough Sounds. There are dorm rooms available as well as budget privates. We’ve personally stayed here before and really like the large, clean kitchen and social atmosphere. It’s also in a central location.

Mid-range Budget – Picton Yacht Club Hotel

We’ve also stayed here once before and it was a good affordable option only meters away for shops, restaurants, the harbor, and it has a pool! This is a great option is you’re looking for something clean, comfortable and centrally located without spending a ton.

Luxury – The Moorings

These are luxury waterfront apartments that don’t cut any corners when it comes to luxury. You’ll be able to enjoy views of the Marlborough Sounds right from the comfort of your balcony. The full kitchens in each unit also means you can have a bottle of white on chill for when you get back after your Marlborough Sounds cruise!

You can check all of the hotels and their prices in Picton on Booking.com!

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Before you go…

For us, the wildlife Marlborough Sounds cruise was one of our favorite things we did in New Zealand! It was fun, exciting, and an enjoyable afternoon that we would highly recommend to anybody traveling that way!

Thanks so much for reading our guide to a Marlborough Sounds cruise. We really hope you found the article helpful in choosing the best cruise. If you did like this guide be sure to check out our official New Zealand page. It links to over 100 guides on New Zealand!

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-Bailey

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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.

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