There are few cooler ways to discover new lands than on the back of a dolphin.

That’s what happened in a traditional Maori story anyway. Legend has it that Panereira, whose dolphin kin had an understanding with humans, carried one of the first Maori across the sea to New Zealand. Another, Pahu, so-called because of the sound of its breathing above the waves, was the reincarnation of those whose spirits had returned to the sea, and appeared under the full moon to beckon newcomers “beyond the kelp”.

A shore thing

You’d need supernatural hearing to detect its call, because instead of whistles like other dolphins, Hector’s bombard each other with high pitched clicks at frequencies of 125kHz, while our hearing goes kaput at a pitiful 20. Strangely enough we’re more likely to spot the world’s smallest dolphin by sight, as it tends to languish between 9 and 27km (5 and 17 miles) off shore, and in addition to its dusky grey, black and white markings, it has a distinctive “Mickey Mouse ear” dorsal fin. When we looked closer in 2002, we discovered even more differences.

Seas of change

It probably happened about 15,000 years ago in the Pleistocene period. A literal north-south divide between the Islands separated the dolphins into two groups, with Hector’s in the south, and future subspecies the Māui dolphin in the north. Named after a Maori word for North Island, Te Ika a Maui, it has a larger skull and broader snout than Hector’s, and a much larger problem. Both are endangered, but while Hector’s population hovers around 7,000 individuals, the Māui has about 100 times fewer. Good job we spotted it when we did!

Sick of fish, in more ways than one

Being a playful dolphin of the shallows unfortunately places you in the path of boat propellers and the ever popular trawling and gillnets. (Sound familiar?) Hector’s and the Māui can neither detect the nylon nets nor swim backwards, so they’re helpless once caught. Human pollutants in the water like PCBs and DDTs also have a nasty habit of accumulating in the food chain, and since munching on fish and squid puts these dolphins at the top, their immune and reproductive systems are taking a hammering. But there is hope.

Waves of sympathy

Thanks to conservation campaigns and even protest marches, marine sanctuaries such as Banks Peninsula have been set up to protect Hector’s and the Māui dolphin. Various organisations are also working with fisheries to find more sustainable ways of yanking up catch, and gillnets have been banned in certain areas.

Tourism can give these little dolphins a boost, but while watching them play with seaweed and blow bubbles is all kinds of adorable, we’re checking if this is wise, as getting too close to them, especially when calves are about, can disturb and upset them. It doesn’t help that they’re slow to pop out sprogs either – Mum has one baby at a time, and won’t rejoin the dating pool until it leaves home at 2-3 years old – so their population grows at a sea snail’s pace.

Here’s hoping their cuteness and cultural significance keep their heads above water as long as they need it.


Latin: Cephalorhynchus hectori / Cephalorhynchus hectori maui, named after Sir James Hector who discovered it / a Maori word for North Island

What? Small dolphin with a “Mickey Mouse ear” dorsal fin. Its subspecies, the Māui dolphin, was recognised in 2002.

Where? Shallow coastal waters off New Zealand. There are three small populations near South Island, and one of the subspecies Māui off the west coast of North Island.

How big? 1.2 metres / 4 feet long

Endangered? Yes, there are only about 7,000 left, and the Māui subspecies is Critically Endangered, with fewer than 60 animals.

Probable motto: I love the shallows, they’re much safer than….oh.

They look cute. Do they need my help at all?

Absolutely yes – especially the Māui dolphin, due to gillnets and bycatch, pollution, boat disturbance and habitat loss.

WWF is working in conjunction with local fisheries and the International Whaling Commission towards safer, dolphin-friendly nets, as well as campaigning to extend their protected areas.

Project Jonah also offers local support and lobbying.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing:

Facts about Māui dolphin“. No date. Department of Conservation, Te Papa Atawhai.

Hector’s dolphin“. No date. Department of Conservation, Te Papa Atawhai.

Hector’s dolphin“. No date. WWF.

Hector’s dolphin“. No date.

Maori People & Hector’s Dolphin“. 2012. NABUInternational, from ‘Beyond the Kelp’ by Amy Taylor and Rohan Currey. YouTube.

Māui dolphin“. No date. WWF.

Please help us save Maui and Hector’s dolphins!“. No date. NZ Whale & Dolphin Trust.

Te Kuru o te Marama Dewes. 2018. “Marching for endangered Māui and Hectors Dolphins“. Maori Television.

Featured image credit: “Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori)” by Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith