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Story: Dolphins

Most of the dolphin species that breed, feed and frolic in New Zealand waters can be found around the world. There have been some remarkable individuals – notably Pelorus Jack, who accompanied ships travelling between Wellington and Nelson, and Opo, the beloved bottlenose who let children ride on her back. There is also a species unique to New Zealand – Hector’s dolphin, and a subspecies, Māui’s dolphin. Fully protected by law, they are among the rarest of these intelligent, fascinating marine mammals.

Story by Gerard Hutching
Main image: A pod of dusky dolphins

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

There are many species of dolphin around the world, and several live in New Zealand waters. These smart, playful mammals live in groups (called pods) and move around frequently. Sleek and streamlined, most have a beak-like snout and usually a fin on their backs. They can live for 50 years or more, feeding on fish, squid and other live prey. The 10 species found in New Zealand are protected by law, and tourists watch or swim with them around the coast.

Common dolphins

With a tall dorsal fin and pale yellow side patches, this is a species the ancient Greeks and Romans painted. It is the most numerous of New Zealand’s dolphins. Pods range from a few individuals to thousands, and are seen in many places – especially from Kaikōura to Hawke Bay in summer.

Dusky dolphins

Also common in New Zealand, this smaller species has diagonal side stripes. They are seen most often from East Cape down to Kaikōura, where they leap and somersault in summer. They prefer areas where warm and cool waters mix, as this is where they find lots of krill and other food. Some duskies brave the chilly waters further south.

Hector’s and Māui’s dolphins

Smaller again, Hector’s dolphins are unique to New Zealand. Black and grey with a round dorsal fin, they live close to the South Island’s shores – off the West Coast, Marlborough, Banks Peninsula and the south coast. The rare Māui’s dolphins are a northern subspecies. They can get caught up in fishing nets, which are restricted in some areas.

Bottlenose dolphins

These grey dolphins have a stubby, rounded beak. They are based at three main sites: the Bay of Islands, the Marlborough Sounds, and the cold waters of Fiordland.

Humans and dolphins

There are many stories of dolphins befriending or protecting people. Two dolphins were particularly well loved in New Zealand:

  • Pelorus Jack. From 1888 to 1912 he accompanied ships travelling between Wellington and Nelson.
  • Opo. One summer in 1955–56 she frolicked with holidaymakers in the Hokianga.

Dolphin fossils

You can find dolphin and whale fossils at many New Zealand sites, but the best is in Otago’s Waitaki River valley. Once submerged under the sea, it was home to dolphins whose fossilised bones were later found embedded in rocks.

How to cite this page:

Gerard Hutching, 'Dolphins', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/dolphins (accessed 20 November 2017)

Story by Gerard Hutching, published 12 Jun 2006, updated 1 Sep 2015