Opo, a young female bottlenose dolphin, enchanted the residents of the Northland seaside town of Opononi for 10 months, from June 1955 to March 1956. First noticed in Hokianga Harbour by farmer and boat owner Piwai Toi, Opo cautiously began to approach the beach near the Opononi wharf in spring and early summer to make contact with locals.
Once the first newspaper articles and photos appeared in December 1955, Opononi became a magnet for holidaymakers wanting to see her. Hordes travelled by car or bus along dusty, unsealed roads to stay in the camping ground or the hotel, both of which quickly became booked out.
Opo enjoyed being with children most, juggling beach balls or beer bottles on her snout, but she had her favourites among the adults as well. Some of the treatment she received was less welcome – jabs with oars and fights for her attention. Concerned about her fate, locals formed the Opononi Gay Dolphin Protection Committee and called on the government to protect her. As a result, at midnight on 8 March 1956 an order in council came into effect, making it an offence, carrying a £50 fine, to take or molest any dolphin in Hokianga Harbour.
The next day Opo was found dead, jammed in a crevice between rocks. Mystery surrounds her death, as it did Pelorus Jack’s. Some people suggested she had become stranded while fishing, others that she had been killed by fishermen using gelignite, and even more fancifully, that she had committed suicide because she lacked a mate.
The saddened community buried Opo in front of the beach where she had entertained so many. Messages of sympathy poured into Opononi from people around the country, including the governor-general. The sculptor Russell Clark produced a statue in her memory.
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Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Photograph by Eric Lee-Johnson
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