This was the name given to a dolphin which from 1888 to 1912 used to meet and escort ships over a certain stretch of water across Admiralty Bay, north of the French Pass (used by ships travelling between Wellington and Nelson). So regular was the dolphin in its habits that on 26 September 1904 it was protected by Order in Council under the Sea Fisheries Act and remained so until its disappearance. It is thought to have been the first individual sea creature protected in this way by any country.
Pelorus Jack, whose sex was never determined, was identified from photographs, probably correctly, as a Risso's dolphin (Grampus griseus), a species not common in New Zealand waters. It was his habit to meet the steamers near Cape Francis and travel with them (playing about the bow and in some accounts rubbing against the plates) as far as Collinet Point near French Pass; or likewise in the opposite direction. In spite of his name he did not frequent nearby Pelorus Sound, and local residents familiar with his habits assert that he never went through French Pass.
After his protection, wide publicity made Pelorus Jack world famous; postcards based on photographs were much used, and many tourists, including the author Frank T. Bullen, made the trip to Nelson specially to see him, without being disappointed. A short movie film exists. He was often with the ship as long as 20 minutes (the time to cross Admiralty Bay) and was said by local residents to prefer the faster ships. George Webber, a sheepfarmer of French Pass, in boyhood met the steamers twice weekly to exchange mailbags and on occasion had to push Pelorus Jack away from his dinghy with an oar to avoid capsize due to rubbing. Webber's accounts, corroborated by many others, establish that the dolphin continued in its habits for 24 years. Since this approximates to the normal life span of a dolphin, Pelorus Jack (or Pelorus Jill) was probably an infant in 1888, possibly an infant bereaved before weaning (cf. Opo) which might explain in part the unusual behaviour pattern. Eyewitness accounts stating that Pelorus Jack “rubbed against the ship” must be regarded as doubtful. Others, referring to “motionless swimming”, are precise descriptions of a dolphin riding the invisible “pressure wave” which is formed below the surface by a ship's forward motion, and suggest that Pelorus Jack, like innumerable other dolphins, was enjoying getting a ride from ships that passed through his home range, the regularity being due to the frequency of ships in that area.
The officially accepted identification of Pelorus Jack was made by D. C. Bates who also instigated the formal protection. After several false reports of his disappearance (one of which was contradicted by a “Personal” item in the Weekly Press, 9 October 1912) Pelorus Jack was last definitely seen about November-December 1912. A song, “Pelorous Jack”, was widely sung by schoolchildren 20 years later, and for many years a brand of chocolate fish was known as “Pelorus Jack”.
by Antony Francis George Alpers, Editor, Caxton Press, Christchurch.
A contemporary account is James Cowan's booklet Pelorus Jack (Christchurch, 1911). A more fully documented account, based on over 60 eye-witness descriptions, is in A. Alpers' A Book of Dolphins (1960), or its successor Dolphins (1963).