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  • Writer's pictureRose Parsons

Pelorus Jack

Updated: Sep 24, 2021

New Zealand’s first marine mammal tourist attraction.

I was brought up with a fairy tale but in this case the fairy tale was true. It is the story my grandmother told me about Pelorus Jack. If you have heard of Pelorus Jack you will know he was a very special dolphin, but many do not know that he was a Risso’s dolphin, considered a subspecies referred as ‘Black Fish’, which includes false killer whales and long and short finned pilot whales. Risso’s dolphin are rare in New Zealand waters and usually travel in pods of 10 – 30 animals. Pelorus Jack was a solitary male.

However he was far from a reclusive character. In 1888 he was reported to be escorting ships from the headland at the Pelorus Sounds to French Pass near D’Urville Island, in the outer Marlborough Sounds. So consistent were his appearances that his story was transmitted around the world and he became New Zealand’s first marine mammal tourism experience long before swimming with the dolphin and whale watching became popular.

He received acclaim in the London Illustrated and New York Times and his story captured the imagination of the public. He was a kind of pre- World War l ‘meme’. Mark Twain, who needs no introduction, was said to visit New Zealand just to see Pelorus Jack!

He had boats he preferred to guide, with SS Wainui and SS Penguin being favoured; but the later was shunned after it clipped him, leaving a deep scar. He was also said to avoid a particular boat when one of its passengers took a pot shot at him.

There were reports of him enjoying “fresh beef and bread loaves” but this seems unlikely, other reports said he was not interested in being fed at all. He would always escort the boats from the Pelorus Sounds headland to the French Pass, a distance of 8 kilometres but never swam through the whirlpools and rapids of the French Pass itself. Then, he would meet a boat coming the other way from Nelson and guide it to the entrance of the Pelorus Sounds, before going his own way. What a remarkable animal he was.

According to local Iwi Ngāti Kuia, Pelorus Jack was a re-embodiment of Kaikaiawaro. A legendary dolphin released by Kupe to be a guardian of his people.

Mystery shrouds the demise of our district’s world famous Risso’s dolphin. Some say he was harpooned by a Norwegian whaler in 1912. Due to the war at the time, his death went by without much publicity and he became a story local families passed onto their children, as it was passed onto me.

Today Pelorus Jack has been given a tribute worthy of this ambassadorship, a beautiful brass statue resembling the dolphin has been placed at the lookout over the French Pass. A lasting memory of our mysterious relationship with marine mammals.

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