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Humpback whale © Christopher Swann

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Joy and sadness watching Hector’s dolphins in their wild place

Dr Nicolette Scourse is an academic, educator, author and illustrator with a passion for whales, dolphins and the ocean. In her guest blog she remembers a magical time spent in the company of endangered Hector's dolphins in New Zealand. She takes us on an evocative journey into their wild home and wonders about their future.

Over to Nicolette...

The widening estuary is deserted...  it was not always like this - a rusting trypot from busy whaling days lies askew on the bank. This three-legged cooking vessel had been used for boiling whale blubber to oil. Beyond is an empty bay, windswept sea.

Shafts of spray erupt into the sky from an outer wall of jagged rocks, and descend white, spilling over rock platforms. A group of spotted shags stand tall amidst swirling sea, firmly anchored by large, yellow feet. All around churning water is punctuated by tips of standing rocks, a dangerous place for weak birds, injured dolphins or boats.

The water beneath these rocks provides a place of shelter for the diminutive Hector’s dolphins. During the previous year our skipper had seen them hide here when a pod of orcas had swum close-in past the bay. They are known as ‘the Silent Dolphin’; they listen rather than call – listening across great distances for orcas who periodically visit, and juvenile blue sharks.

two underwater no border

Your donation will help us save endangered Hector's dolphins from extinction.

Out in the big expanse of the bay its creatures suddenly seem very vulnerable and small.

Then out of nowhere, shapes are dipping and bouncing under our small boat, little Hector’s dolphins like excited toddlers going for a treat, almost cheeky. Less than 1.5m, they are also called ‘Mickey Mouse’ and ‘Hobbit Dolphins’. Pale, torpedo bodies career through the water, swimming... no... almost vibrating with joyful exuberance.  Speed blurs their beautiful intricate markings. Most clearly visible to our slow human eyes are the rounded dorsal fins specific to their kind. Their dark eyes are hidden in a black mask band.

Hector's illustration Nicolette Scourse 1

Two of them cruise towards the beach, porpoising gently, slowly undulating their slim, long tail flukes. Others join in, having lost interest in the arrival of a boat and we three peering humans – this is their way.

The water is cloudy green: rock flour from river water mixing with cold sea supporting plentiful plankton for a rich food chain. Overhead, white-fronted terns circle, squealing. A cormorant face bobs up out of the water. A gull flies in, skimming a splash of spray. Fish are obviously now near the surface - there for the taking. The dolphins feed.

An adult and a juvenile glide near the boat, their flippers nearly touching. A larger one appears – a female, pregnant. Shallow waters like this, where they can stay within one kilometre of the shore, are ideal for pregnancy and rearing young.

More individuals indulge in boisterous jostling, tails beating up and down fast for a turn of speed, dolphins twisting in unpredictable directions. They disappear under the hull of the boat... always a good place to look for sheltering fish, whether predator or a curious human snorkeler. One dolphin reappears and turns to investigate ... a shining black eye gives the fleeting magic of mutual viewing.

In the quiet of the bay we can hear their steady swimming, a rhythmic swish of water as their arching backs break through the surface. Now and then there are little gasping sighs as they briefly open their blowholes for a breath of air. These are the wonderful evocative sounds of dolphins being dolphins... dolphins and humans coexisting.

We quietly leave these diminutive dolphins to get on with their vital communal lives in this big, special place.

This was in 2006. In 2020 these memories of their fast frolicking seem poignantly appropriate for a species that we still need to save from the edge of extinction, and progress is being made by campaigners on opposite sides of the world – WDC and their partners and friends within New Zealand.

These endangered Hector’s dolphins live in shallow coastal waters of New Zealand’s South Island; their close cousins, the critically endangered sub species, Māui dolphins exist only on the west coast of the North Island.

Hector's illustration Nicolette Scourse 2

During our 2006 sighting of Hector’s in Marlborough Sound, our guide had shocked us, telling us that only around 100 Māui were left. Now it's estimated this population has dropped to fewer than 60. A substantial proportion of New Zealanders stated willingness to pay more tax to the government to save the dolphins who are very vulnerable to set nets, trawling fisheries and drilling operations. Like other dolphins, they breed only every two to four years and have their first calves at seven to nine years old, so population growth is slow.

I find unparalleled joy in seeing wild dolphins in their wild place, on their own terms, but this joy is tempered with sadness that we may yet let them down. 2020 was a year of significance – in response to calls from WDC and others, the New Zealand government decided for stricter fishing and environmental protection. This is a move in the right direction but more still needs to be done to give these beautiful dolphins a future.

(Drawings from ‘Wildlife Encounters – Southern Seas & Shores’ by Dr Nicolette Scourse)

Please help these beautiful dolphins with a donation.

Your gift, whether large or small, will help give them a future.


About Julia Pix

Communications manager - Public Engagement

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