Kōrero: Dolphins

Whārangi 5. Humans and dolphins

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Māori and dolphins

Many cultures have revered dolphins. The Greeks put people to death for killing them, and Māori often described them as taniwha, or water spirits.

The Ngātiwai people, who used to live on the Poor Knights, Great Barrier and Little Barrier, believed that dolphins acted as messengers in times of need, bearing news from the islands to the mainland. The tribes living around Cook Strait talked of Paneiraira, a taniwha that resembled a whale. It would help canoes cross the tricky strait between the North and South islands.

The taniwha Tuhirangi guided Kupe, the mythical Polynesian explorer, to New Zealand. Later, Kupe placed Tuhirangi at French Pass in the Marlborough Sounds, to guide canoes through the treacherous waters. Tuhirangi lives there in a cave called Kaikaiawaro.

In the mid-18th century a guardian dolphin accompanied Hinepoupou on her famous long-distance swim. Ngāti Kuia believe the dolphin was Kaikaiawaro, although other traditions believe it was Kahurangi. Hinepoupou, of the Ngāti Kuia tribe, had been abandoned by her husband and his brother on Kāpiti Island, off the south-west coast of the North Island. She decided to swim to her father’s home on Rangitoto ki te Tonga, near D’Urville Island at the edge of the Marlborough Sounds – a distance of 80 kilometres across the northern approach to Cook Strait.

Friendly dolphins

In modern times, friendly dolphins – Pelorus Jack and Opo are the best known – have regularly made appearances around New Zealand’s coast. Throughout human history there have been stories of such sociable individuals; in the 21st century the media and the internet guarantee that such interactions have a high profile.

Pelorus Jack, the speedy Risso

In 1888 a 4-metre Risso’s dolphin escorted a steamer from the outer Marlborough Sounds towards Nelson. He became known as Pelorus Jack, and Māori naturally recognised him as the taniwha Tuhirangi. From then on until his disappearance in 1912, he accompanied ships for a distance of about eight kilometres to and from French Pass, the dangerous passage separating D’Urville Island from the mainland. If the dolphin had to choose between two boats he would pick the faster, and could easily outpace a vessel travelling at 30 kilometres per hour. At night his speeding outline would glow with phosphorescence from plankton in the water. He became so famous that his picture featured on the cover of the Illustrated London News. It was never established whether ‘Jack’ was male or female.


The friendly dolphin Pelorus Jack was said to have been shot at from the ferry Penguin in the early 1900s. From then on, the story went, he would avoid it and ill luck followed the vessel. In 1909 the Penguin sank on the south Wellington coast with the loss of 75 lives, one of the worst maritime disasters in New Zealand history.

Opo, the friendly dolphin

Opo was a young female bottlenose dolphin who first came to notice in June 1955. Named after the town of Opononi on the Hokianga Harbour, she followed boats and was playful around people. Always alone, it seems she had become separated from her pod and may have sought human company as a substitute. She had a favourite among the local children, called Jill, whom she would pick up and take for short rides. Opo and her antics drew crowds of many hundreds to the tiny seaside town. As she grew used to human attention, Opo responded to cheers by increasing the complexity of her tricks and games. Her life was short, however; she died in March 1956, to the sorrow of the entire nation.

Dolphins in captivity

Dolphins which survive the stress of capture and are then held in oceanariums, may be subject to poor hygiene, sanitation and feeding. Even in better equipped institutions, it is said, they do not adjust to life in captivity, suffering high stress and boredom.

Napier’s Marineland, opened in 1965, managed to keep common dolphins, a difficult marine mammal to house. However, in September 2008 its last dolphin died. In May 2008. the government had rejected a petition asking that Marineland be allowed to replace its dolphins.

Communing with wild dolphins

Since the 1980s swimming with wild dolphins has become popular. Each year over 100 commercial tourism operators apply to the Department of Conservation for approvals to either watch or swim with dolphins, seals or whales.

The bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands are the most popular for these activities, although dusky, common and Hector’s dolphins are also visited. Out of concern that the dolphins might be disturbed by this attention, a long-term study was undertaken. This showed that most dolphins are generally not interested in interacting with humans. Swimmers should enter the water off to the side, not in the dolphins’ path.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Gerard Hutching, 'Dolphins - Humans and dolphins', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/dolphins/page-5 (accessed 22 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Gerard Hutching, i tāngia i te 12 Jun 2006, updated 1 Sep 2015