Saving Hector’s dolphins

The smallest and rarest species of dolphin, the Hector’s dolphin, is undergoing a population boost due to conservation work at the dolphin sanctuary at Banks Peninsula.

New Zealand is the only home of the world's smallest - and possibly rarest - dolphin, the Hector’s dolphin (cephalorhynchus hectori hectori).

An inshore coastal species with a limited home range, Hector's dolphins are found mainly around Banks Peninsula, in the South Island, but there are also smaller pockets on the west and southern coasts of the South Island, and the west coast of the North Island.

Two sub-species
The Hector’s dolphin species is divided into two sub-species:

  • South Island Hector’s dolphin
  • Maui’s dolphin - found in the North Island.

Overall, the Hector’s dolphin species is estimated to number fewer than 8,000, down from close to 30,000 in the early 1970s.

Classified by New Zealand's Department of Conservation (DOC) as ‘nationally critical’, there are only about 110 Maui’s dolphins.

Maui’s dolphins live in the North Island - a west coast area on the northern end of the island, lying between the Kawhia and Kaipara harbours.

South Island Hector’s dolphin
The South Island Hector’s dolphin sub-species lives in three geographically distinct groups around the South Island.

Populations are found in a marine mammal sanctuary on Banks Peninsula, near Christchurch; on the southern coast around Porpoise Bay, in the Catlins, and Waikawa Bay, in eastern Southland; and on the West Coast.

DOC classifies the South Island Hector’s dolphin as ‘nationally endangered’.

Banks Peninsula sanctuary
Banks Peninsula, with its many bays and natural harbours at Akaroa and Lyttelton, was declared New Zealand’s first marine mammal sanctuary in 1988.

The sanctuary was extended in 2008, and now reaches beyond Banks Peninsula - along the coasts to the north and south - and 12 nautical miles off-shore. Set netting is banned in the area for most of the year.

The sanctuary was created to protect the Hector’s dolphin, though it is also home to other endangered species, including hoiho / yellow-eyed penguin, kororā / white flippered penguin and kekeno / New Zealand fur seal.

Since the reserve was created, Hector’s dolphin numbers on the peninsula have risen to around 1000 - the result of both public and community conservation work.

Black Cat Cruises
Akaroa tourism operators, Black Cat Cruises, are among those who have been involved long-term in conservation projects protecting the Hector’s dolphin at Banks Peninsula.

The first cruise company to gain international Green Globe 21 certification, Black Cat Cruises has taken hundreds of thousands of visitors on viewing and dolphin swimming cruises on Akaroa harbour.

Surrounded by steep cliffs, Akaroa harbour lies in the flooded crater of an extinct volcano, providing a sheltered location for dolphin encounters.

Black Cat’s dolphin swimming code includes not issuing flippers to swimmers, floating quietly in the water, and removing sun tan lotion which could potentially impact dolphin behaviour.

Part of Black Cat’s sales revenue goes back into a fund for dolphin research, education and other environmental projects.

Background: Hector’s dolphin

  • Hector’s dolphin is distinguished by a rounded dorsal fin and black, grey and white markings. With a maximum length of 145 cm, it is the world’s smallest marine dolphin.
  • Life expectancy is only around 20 years.
  • The Hector’s dolphin has a low reproductive rate. A female doesn’t calf until about seven or eight years old, and only once every two to four years.
  • Fishing is the greatest known human threat, in particular set nets in the shallow murky water close to shore where they often feed.
  • Hector's dolphins take their name from 19th century New Zealand zoologist, Sir James Hector, a former curator of New Zealand's national museum.
  • Their fragile status was first recognised by the New Zealand Government in 1999 when they were named a ‘threatened species’.
  • Hector’s dolphins are listed on the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Red List as endangered, and among the most rare of the 32 marine dolphin species.

More information:

New Zealand dolphins

New Zealand's dolphin tales

Akaroa - the French connection