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Seeking a future for New Zealand’s rare dolphins

 

When WWF-New Zealand Communications Manager Rosa Argent swam with Hector’s dolphins in Akaroa Harbour, the experience strengthened her resolution to ensure they, and their North Island close relative Maui’s dolphin, survive for the next generation:

WWF-New Zealand communications manager Rosa ArgentRosa Argent, WWF New Zealand's communications manager

“The small, sleek body of a Hector’s dolphin darted past me, so close it almost brushed my dry-suit. Through the rolling waves and murky sea of a stormy Akaroa Harbour, two more dolphins flicked playfully through the water just metres away.

For a joyous half hour encounter, I was part of a small group of paying tourists who got to experience this pod of New Zealand’s endangered Hector’s dolphins on their own terms.

Fast forward several years and I’m recalling this magical experience while scanning the horizon for dolphins from the new Earthrace boat, Sealegs, on a stretch of coast between Manukau Harbour and Port Waikato. But this is no holiday; I’m working for WWF-New Zealand and am on a media trip to find Maui’s, the North Island sub-species of Hector’s dolphins.

Maui's Dolphins swimmingMaui's Dolphins swimming © Aukland University

New official research out this year revealed a shocking find: Maui’s are down to just 55 individuals over the age of one. Like their South Island cousin, these exquisite creatures are facing extinction because they are still drowning in the nylon fishing nets that were introduced to such deadly effect in the 1970s.

It is this story that we are hoping to share with New Zealanders by gathering some rare footage of the elusive and diminutive dolphins on our trip. Yet after more than 8 hours on the choppy waves on a bright but cold May day, we’ve spied a few gannets and gulls but are still no closer to seeing a Maui’s.

Maui’s current range extends from Dargaville down to Hawera in south Taranaki. That’s about 500 kilometers in distance, and they can be found in any waters up to 100m deep throughout this entire area. With just 55 individuals left it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

As we conceded defeat on the waves and crossed back through the notorious Manukau Bar towards dry land, the contrast between this trip and my encounter with the Hector’s dolphins two years ago could not have been greater.

Maui's Dolphins swimmingMaui's Dolphins swimming © Aukland University

In Akaroa I had been five months pregnant, my unborn daughter part of the experience, and now I am left wondering if she will one day spend a fruitless day searching for Hector’s, long after Maui’s have disappeared forever, in places where we once swum together.

But with WWF and others campaigning tirelessly to save these incredible animals hope remains that in future our dolphins will not just cling onto existence but recover their numbers. A happier scenario is that one day my daughter may even catch a glimpse of a Maui’s rounded dorsal where I did not, as these dolphins once again rule the waves.

We are calling on people around the world to take action for Maui’s dolphins, by urging New Zealand’s Prime Minister to protect Maui’s throughout their habitat and secure their survival.

Take action for Maui’s at worldwildlife.org/SaveMauiDolphin.

Update

Here’s some great recent footage of a pod of these incredibly rare Maui’s dolphins off the New Zealand coast. Don’t worry, we’ve confirmed that these dolphins approached the boat to have fun and bow ride. Thanks to New Zealand journalist Tracey Cooper for the footage.

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