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As a young girl, I was instilled with a deep understanding of the importance of caring for nature. 

In school we were taught about animals that had helped humanity and how it was important to always be caring and considerate with other living creatures.

Two such creatures come to my mind when I think back to those days all those years ago in my small rural primary school. They were known as Pelorous Jack and Opo.  

Today I want to share their remarkable stories. New Zealand has a rich maritime history, not only because of its human inhabitants but also due to its notable marine life. Among the many creatures that have left a mark on the nation's cultural heritage, these two dolphins stand out: They captured the hearts of New Zealanders and visitors alike, becoming legendary figures in their own right.

Pelorus Jack, a Risso’s dolphin (uncommon in New Zealand) that accompanied ships travelling between Wellington and Nelson, was so named because he would meet boats near the entrance to Pelorus Sound, in the Marlborough Sounds. 

 Pelorus Sound Entrance New Zealand.8

Risso's dolphins, sometimes called gray dolphins, are found in the temperate and tropical zones of all the world’s oceans. These cetaceans generally prefer deeper offshore waters, especially near the continental shelf edge and slope, where they can dive to at least 1,000 feet and hold their breath for 30 minutes. They are also very active on the ocean surface.

Risso's dolphins are typically found in groups of between 10 and 30 animals, though they have been reported as solitary individuals, in pairs, or in loose aggregations in the hundreds or thousands.

First noticed in 1888 when he joined a steamer bound for Nelson, Pelorus Jack spent the next 24 years escorting boats from Pelorus Sound to treacherous French Pass, a narrow stretch of water between D’Urville Island and the mainland, where the water surges through at up to 8 knots.

Pelorus Jack always remained within a well-defined area. He joined boats heading for Nelson at the entrance to Pelorus Sound and swam to, but never through, French Pass. On the reverse journey, he met ships as they came out of the pass, staying with them for the 8 kilometres to Pelorus Sound before going his own way. He enjoyed swimming up against the boats and riding their bow waves.

Over the years his fame grew and he became a tourist attraction, drawing such well-known figures as American writer Mark Twain and English author Frank T. Bullen. But his celebrity attracted not only well wishers; in the early 1900s someone fired at him from a steamer. Demands that Pelorus Jack be protected by law led to a 1904 order in council (renewed twice before he died) under the Sea-fisheries Act 1894 and the subsequent Fisheries Act 1908. These protection orders were invalid, as neither act covered marine mammals other than seals.

Mystery surrounds Pelorus Jack’s death. Many believed that he was harpooned by Norwegian whalers who anchored off the entrance to Pelorus Sound in late April 1912. There is an account of an anonymous deathbed confession by a man who said he helped his father kill a dolphin stranded after a storm. They later realised it had been Pelorus Jack. Although there had been no alternative, the man was haunted by his action for the rest of this life.

It is pronounced Pel OR us Jack, not pelorous Jack  

Charlie Moeller, who maintained the marine light at French Pass, claims Pelorus Jack was washed up on a beach, where his carcass rotted. This latter account is likely; the dolphin was at least 24 years old, and probably died of old age.

The legend of Pelorus Jack lived on after his death. A chocolate bar was named after him and he is the subject of a number of songs.

Several decades after Pelorus Jack, another dolphin captured the hearts of New Zealanders. 

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.

Hokianga Map.mediumthumb

The Bottlenose Dolphin has a short rounded snout, described as bottle-shaped, a smooth rounded melon. The large dorsal fin is slightly hooked and set half way along the body. Overall the body colour is a series of grey tones with an indistinct paler grey wash on the flanks fading into an off-white belly.

Two forms of Bottlenose Dolphin are currently recognised - the 'inshore' form and the 'offshore' form, which could possibly be different species. The Bottlenose Dolphin is commonly seen in groups or pods, containing anything from two or three individuals to more than a thousand.

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.

In Opononi local people, concerned that harm might come to Opo, formed a committee to protect her and successfully petitioned the government to pass a law to that effect. The committee was known as the Opononi Gay Dolphin Protection Committee; the official custodian who put up this sign enjoyed the alliteration of ‘Gay Golphin’. Meaning Happy. 

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 died by 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.

p 4700 wmu

Both Pelorus Jack and Opo left indelible marks on New Zealand's cultural and natural heritage. They are celebrated not only for their unique interactions with humans but also for the way they highlighted the connection between people and marine life. Their stories are taught in schools, commemorated in local folklore, and remembered through various memorials and artistic expressions.

These dolphins demonstrated that even wild animals could form bonds with humans, and their tales continue to inspire a sense of wonder and respect for the natural world. Pelorus Jack and Opo are more than just historical figures; they are symbols of the extraordinary and often surprising relationships that can form between humans and the creatures with whom we share our planet.

 No doubt, their last words were " So long and thanks for all the fish. "  No doubt, readers of Douglas Adams will get my drift. 

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