New Zealand's dolphin tales

Generations of Kiwis, past and present, have grown up with dolphin tales – the stories of ‘celebrity’ dolphins who’ve achieved local and sometimes international fame through their exploits in New Zealand’s coastal waters.

Generations of Kiwis, past and present, have grown up with dolphin tales - the stories of ‘celebrity’ dolphins who’ve achieved local and sometimes international fame through their exploits in New Zealand’s coastal waters.

A regular feature on many parts of the North and South Island coast, there are 13 different dolphin species living around New Zealand.

Dolphins - the fastest swimmers in the sea - are often seen following boats, or playing in shallow waters off beaches. Occasionally individual dolphins move into an area, stay a while and get to know the locals.

New Zealand’s ‘celebrity’ dolphins feature in a line-up that reaches all the way from early Māori mythology into modern folklore.

Māori and dolphins

Māori have a traditional relationship with marine mammals. They often described dolphins as taniwha, or water spirits, and told stories about certain taniwha that had intervened in human life.

According to Ngāti Wai people - who inhabited islands off Auckland’s eastern coast - dolphins acted as messengers in times of need, carrying news from the islands to the mainland.

There are several stories concerning Cook Strait - the sea passage between the North and South Islands - and the surrounding coastal areas:

  • Tribes that lived around Cook Strait talked of Paneiraira, a taniwha that helped canoes cross the tricky waters.
  • An ancient story tells how the taniwha Tuhirangi guided Kupe, the legendary Polynesian explorer, to New Zealand. Kupe placed Tuhirangi at French Pass in the Marlborough Sounds, to guide canoes through treacherous waters.
  • In the mid-18th century, the guardian dolphin Kahurangi accompanied Hinepoupou as she escaped abandonment on Kapiti Island (north of Wellington) to return 80km to her father in the Marlborough Sounds (South Island).

Pelorus Jack - Marlborough Sounds

Several dolphins have made their names in New Zealand folklore over the two centuries since Europeans arrived.

For 24 years (1888 -1912), Pelorus Jack - recognised by Māori as the taniwha Tuhirangi - guided ships between Wellington, the Marlborough Sounds and Nelson.

Pelorus Jack was usually seen accompanying ships through French Pass, the dangerous passage between D’Urville Island and the mainland. If there were two boats, the dolphin chose the faster, and could easily beat a vessel doing 30k/ph.

At night Pelorus Jack’s speeding outline glowed with phosphorescence from plankton in the water. His picture appeared on the cover of the Illustrated London News.

Pelorus Jack was a four-metre Risso’s dolphin, though it was never confirmed whether ‘Jack’ was male or female.

Opo - Opononi, Northland

For two summers (1955 and 1956), Opo - a young female bottlenose dolphin - captivated New Zealanders with her playful nature and gentle antics.

Big crowds visited the little Northland town of Opononi, in the Hokianga Harbour, where Opo played with children, allowing them to touch her and ride on her back.

As she got used to human attention, Opo responded to cheers by increasing the difficulty of her tricks and games.

Opo became the subject of a song, and the nation mourned when she died in March 1956.

Moko - Mahia Beach

The seaside escapades of Moko - resident dolphin in the waters surrounding Mahia and Whakatane, on the east coast of the North Island - are the latest chapter in New Zealand dolphin-lore.

Moko, a young bottlenose dolphin, became a headliner when he moved into the Hawke’s Bay region in 2007, wowing the crowds with his playful antics and love of human company.

In March 2008, Moko made world headlines when he saved two beached pygmy sperm whales. Conservation workers had been working to get the whales back into open water when Moko appeared, leading the whales to safety through a narrow channel into the sea.

Always ready to play, the adolescent dolphin occasionally caused problems for human friends when he refused to give up on games. One tired lone swimmer had to be rescued by boat after Moko's games wore her out.

Moko had meant no harm, she said afterwards, but she had been unwise to be out there alone.

In early 2010, Moko moved north around the East Cape to the small coastal town of Whakatane where the locals organised a Moko minder - to help keep the playful dolphin away from trouble - and tourists flocked to see him.

Sadly, Moko's life came to a premature end in July 2010, when his body was found washed ashore near Tauranga.

Dolphin encounters

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation advises that swimmers should not try to handle, ride or be towed by a dolphin.

Swimmers should remain calm if approached by a dolphin, and allow the mammal to make contact if it wants to.

Boaties are advised to keep boat speeds and engine noise down while around dolphins.

Swimming with dolphins

Since the 1980s, swimming with wild dolphins has become a popular tourism activity in New Zealand.

Each year over 100 commercial tourism operators apply to the Department of Conservation (DOC) for approvals to either watch or swim with dolphins, seals or whales.

The bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands (in the northern North Island) are the most popular for these activities, although dusky, common and Hector’s dolphins are also often seen.

In the sheltered waters of the Marlborough Sounds, Dolphin Watch Nature Tours provide boat and simming tours from their catamaran. There are opportunities to see several species of dolphin including common, bottlenose, Dusky and Hector's.

A little further south at Kaikoura - on the eastern coast of the South Island - award-winning Kaikoura Dolphin Encounter (Top 10 in Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Experiences) runs tours swimming or watching Dusky dolphins in their natural environment.

In Akaroa Harbour, on the Banks Peninsula and south of Christchurch, Black Cat Cruises offer the once in a lifetime thrill swimming with Hector's - the world's smallest and rarest dolphin.