A dolphin found dead in the Bay of Plenty will undergo an autopsy to determine whether it is well-known local Moko, who has entertained beachgoers on the North Island east coast for the past few years.
The bottlenose dolphin was found on Matakana Island beach, near Mt Maunganui, yesterday.
The dolphin's carcass was removed from Matakana Island this afternoon and would be sent to Massey University for an autopsy to confirm what may have caused its death and whether it was Moko, Department of Conservation (DOC) spokeswoman Katrina Knill.
The dolphin was dead before it washed up on the beach, but the cause of death was not yet known, she said.
Findings from the autopsy were expected next week.
"Based on the size, markings and teeth of the carcass, we think that this is Moko," DOC ranger Jamie Quirk said today.
Mr Quirk had worked with Moko since he turned up on the Mahia Peninsula on the east coast in 2007.
Moko was found to have lost eight teeth during an examination earlier this year, possibly from playing with anchor or mooring chains or ropes. He was last seen about two weeks ago and DOC staff said they had been concerned for him because of the lack of sightings.
The carcass had begun to decay and could have been there for up to two weeks, DOC Tauranga area manager Andrew Baucke said.
"Wild dolphins, like Moko, face numerous risks in their daily lives and from time to time carcasses such as this wash up on our shores," he said.
"We wouldn't usually go to such lengths but have decided to on this occasion because of the public interest and affinity with Moko, and have gained support from the local iwi to do so."
If the dolphin was found to be Moko, DOC would consult with iwi over a farewell.
"We'll be looking into what's most practical and appropriate over the next few days," Ms Knill said.
The playful dolphin had been a familiar sight around Gisborne before following a fishing boat to the Bay of Plenty earlier this year.
Moko arrived at Pilot Bay in Mt Maunganui on June 3, but has been seen rarely since.
Marine biologist Amy Taylor, who has been making a film about Moko, told NZPA this afternoon she was about to depart on a boat to help identify the dolphin.
Mr Baucke said Moko was a wild animal and his death could have been caused by any number of factors.
"We'll be taking steps to identify the cause of death and dispose of the body appropriately," he said.
"This is a sad loss. The way that Moko interacted with people really inspired public interest and care for dolphins and marine mammals and their environment in general.
"I'm sure that those who got to see and swim with him will treasure those memories."
Moko made news around the world when he apparently saved the lives of stranded pygmy sperm whales at Hawke's Bay's Mahia Beach.
His spreading fame made him a tourist attraction, but as he grew larger and his play became rougher swimmers were warned to keep their distance.
Report of attacks on Moko raised fears that his association with humans could ultimately prove fatal, as it was with other dolphins which have entered New Zealand folklore.
"People have had a lot of enjoyment from interacting with him and learned lots about dolphins and cetaceans. He was a unique part of New Zealand history," Mr Quirk said.
OTHER FAMOUS NEW ZEALAND DOLPHINS
* Pelorus Jack, a Risso's dolphin, accompanied ships travelling between Wellington and Nelson. He was the first dolphin in the world to be protected by law.
He was first noticed in 1888 when he joined a steamer bound for Nelson. Pelorus Jack spent 24 years escorting boats from Pelorus Sound to the treacherous French Pass.
In the early 1900s someone fired at him from a steamer.
An Order in Council was drawn up in 1904, declaring him protected.
Pelorus Jack's ultimate fate was never established. Rumours told of Norwegian whalers killing him, but others claimed to have seen his body on a beach. He may have died of old age.
* Opo the bottlenose dolphin became a legend in the summer of 1955-56 for playing with the children at Opononi on the Hokianga.
She became a national celebrity and was quickly declared protected.
But on March 9, 1956, she was found dead at Koutu Point.
It was suspected that a fisherman using dynamite accidently killed Opo.
A tangi was held and Opo was buried next to the town hall.
- Stuff.co.nz, NZPA and Dominion Post
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