This name was given to a young female bottlenosed dolphin (genus Tursiops) which throughout the summer of 1955–56 frequented the beach at Opononi, Hokianga, inviting repeated human contact and playing with bathers and children in a manner not previously recorded for a wild dolphin since Roman times.
The dolphin was first noticed by Hokianga fishermen in early 1955, when it followed their boats, alone. During that year it was found to enjoy being scratched with an oar, and closer contact began to be made. It froliced around small boats and followed them to the shore, and with the coming of summer it began to encounter humans in the water. Being presumed a male it was at first named Opononi Jack, by association with Pelorus Jack. This was later shortened to Opo.
By Christmas 1955, at the height of the holiday season, Opo could be relied on to appear almost every day, and could be summoned by the sound of an outboard motor, audible to her from a great distance. Certain children, especially, established friendly contact. She permitted stroking and scratching, and even short rides by smaller children. One girl, Jill Baker, was notably successful and believed that the dolphin recognised and enjoyed her presence. Children or adults who were rough were avoided. As in the last known similar case (at Hippo, about A.D. 100, described by Pliny the Younger) the dolphin drew large crowds to the tiny township. They were not as at Hippo an embarrassment to local resources but a source of profit. A committee of protection was formed and notices were erected asking for careful behaviour.
It was found that Opo enjoyed playing with a rubber beach ball. She would toss it high in the air with her snout, rushing forward to let it fall on her back. She also turned over, rolled the ball along her belly and flipped it upward with her tail. She played similar games with a beer bottle, and alongside a boat would present her throat for scratching with an oar. A movie film records that on one occasion when schoolchildren formed a ring by linking hands, Opo entered the ring, tossed a beach ball, and gently swam out again. No child was injured by her movements and no one was bitten during about four months of frequent contact.
As with Pelorus Jack, official protection was asked for, and this was promised early in March 1956. By Order in Council the Fisheries (Dolphin Protection) Regulations 1956 were to become law at midnight on March 8. On that day the dolphin did not appear as usual, and a search began. On 9 March she was found dead, jammed in a rock crevice where the tide issues from a large rockpool at Koutu Point. Local belief was that, either deliberately or accidentally, she was stunned by a gelignite blast. (Explosives are illegally used to obtain fish.)
The news caused sorrow throughout the country. In Whangarei on 10 March a girls' hockey team wore black armbands on the field. The Governor-General, Sir Willoughby Norrie, telegraphed his sympathy to the children of Opononi. The animal was identified by E. G. Turbott as a Tursiops, about three-quarters grown. Hence it had probably lost its mother before weaning (cf. Pelorus Jack). Opo was buried beside the R.S.A. hall and her grave was decked with flowers. Later, the sculptor Russell Clark carved and donated to Opononi the figure of a boy and dolphin, in Hinuera stone. (For a fuller account, see A Book of Dolphins, Alpers, A.)
by Antony Francis George Alpers, Editor, Caxton Press, Christchurch.