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Pelorus Jack, the New Zealand Dolphin

Updated: Jun 17

Today we will tell you a touching and true story about a New Zealand dolphin named Pelorus Jack. It began in 1888 when the sailors of the Brindle, sailing from Boston to Wellington, saw an unusual dolphin when approaching French Pass near the top of the South Island. He had patches of dark and light grey, white and cream. Subsequently, locals wrongly considered him an albino. His strong five-meter body cut through the wave in front of the bow of the ship, accurately leading the way through a complex passage to the treacherous Cook Strait. The crew wanted to harpoon the dolphin. However, the captain’s wife intervened, and this unusual guide accompanied the Brindle for several hours until the most challenging part of the passage was completed.

Dolphin, New Zealand travel blog. Tours to New Zealand. Guide in New Zealand.

Since then, the dolphin continued to accompany ships sailing between Wellington and Nelson. He was named Pelorus Jack around 1895. Before this, this species of dolphin, atypical of New Zealand waters, was called the “big white fish.” The first part of the dolphin’s name refers to the name of one of the Marlborough Sounds fiords, where he would usually meet and begin escorting ships. And the second part of the name goes back to the tradition of local whalers, who used to call large individuals Jackie.

In 1904, someone aboard the SS Penguin tried to shoot Pelorus Jack with a rifle. According to some reports, the dolphin was injured, according to others - the shot fell by. After the incident, the dolphin disappeared for several weeks, but then reappeared in the Cook Strait and returned to his previous occupation. However, since then, Pelorus Jack ignored the SS Penguin, yet still escorted other vessels. When the SS Penguin entered the strait, the dolphin would disappear. February 12, 1909 the Penguin was shipwrecked on rocks in the Cook Strait, killing 75 people. Locals called it retaliation for the attempt on Pelorus Jack.

Following the shooting incident, a law was proposed to protect Pelorus Jack. He became protected by Order in Council under the Sea Fisheries Act on September 26, 1904. Pelorus Jack remained protected by that law until his disappearance in 1912. It is believed that he was the first individual sea creature protected by law in any country.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Pelorus Jack became a New Zealand attraction - they wrote about him in popular magazines, newspapers and tourist guides. Tourists from different countries came to see him (among the travellers were writers Mark Twain and Frank T. Ballen). In December 1910, a portrait of Pelorus Jack was published on the cover of the London Illustrated News.

Pelorus Jack’s escort of the ship was documented in a video that became part of the film “Pictorial Parade” (1956) created by the “National film uniten”. Pelorus Jack became the hero of several books for children, poems and songs, and his image was reproduced on postcards with the inscription “The only fish in the world protected by the law of Parliament”, and was used in souvenir products. For many years, the Pelorus Jack brand of chocolate existed. The dolphin is dedicated to the Scottish dance of the same name and he is still depicted on the logo of the New Zealand company Interislander, which operates inter-island ferry services across the Cook Strait.

Pelorus Jack disappeared in April 1912. Various rumours circulated about his disappearance; the most common version was the death at the hands of the harpooners of the Norwegian whaling flotilla, who did not know about the existence of the law protecting him. Researchers believe the more likely cause was a natural death from old age.

Today, dolphins, like other marine mammals, are protected by the laws of New Zealand, and as before, many of these friendly animals accompany ships in the territorial waters of Aotearoa. You are welcome to swim with dolphins in their natural habitat, for example in Akaroa.

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