Rare encounter with Maui's dolphins

TRACEY COOPER
Last updated 05:00 13/03/2012
Tracey Cooper, Mike Scott

Waikato Times feature writer Tracey Cooper had an extraordinary encounter with four Maui Dolphins off the Waikato coast.

Maui dolphin
TRACEY COOPER/Fairfax NZ
UNCOMMON SIGHT: A Maui dolphin swims beside Tracey Cooper's boat on Sunday.

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The day after Raglan hosted its Maui's Dolphin Awareness Day on Saturday we ran into four of them off the coast.

Well, to be honest, they ran into us, with a couple of light thumps on the aluminium hull of my boat likely to have come from the powerful tail of a Maui's dolphin.

It had already been a great day on the water. We had a good haul of tuna on board, we'd seen a huge workup of kahawai, with gannets plunging into the ocean all around us, spotted a marlin cruising by and then had a close encounter with what may have been 5 per cent of the world's population of Maui's dolphins.

Estimates put the total population of the critically endangered dolphin at just 80, so when four turned up in the bow wave of the boat about a kilometre offshore of Whale Bay we thought it was a pretty special moment.

There were three of us on board and we're no experts on dolphin identification but we didn't have to be to spot the distinguishing characteristics of a Maui's dolphin. Other dolphins are huge.

These ones were smallish, maybe 1.5 metres long. They're grey with black markings on their streamlined bodies, fins and tail and the giveaway rounded dorsal fins.

They hung around long enough for me to get the camera out and begin taking photos and shooting some video, all the while steering the boat as well.

Then two more turned up, surfing the bow wave, breaching as they powered ahead, diving under the boat and generally having fun.

They looked healthy and happy as they cruised along beside the boat and as we headed to the Manu Bay boat ramp, they kept up with us until we were only a couple of hundred metres from the ramp.

Then, as quickly as they had appeared, they were gone.

Associate professor Liz Slooten of Otago University, who has been studying Maui's dolphins and their South Island counterpart Hector's dolphins, since 1984, said most Maui's dolphin sightings occurred between Manukau Harbour and Port Waikato so "you were really lucky" to have seen four so close to Raglan.

She said figures from the latest research, due to be published in the next week, may put Maui's dolphin numbers as low as 79.

We're down to counting individual mammals now.

I've reported the sightings to both the Conservation Department and World Wildlife Fund for Nature, who collate information about Maui's dolphin sightings as they continue to battle to help their survival. Hopefully the information we've provided helps.

MAUI'S DOLPHIN

New Zealand's rarest dolphin.

It is the world's smallest dolphin and is found only on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand.

Listed internationally as "critically endangered", which means there is a high risk of it becoming extinct in the near future.

The Department of Conservation estimates there are fewer than 100 left.

Females grow to 1.7 metres long and weigh up to 50kg.

Males are slightly smaller and lighter.

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They have distinctive grey, white and black markings and a short snout and a black dorsal fin.

Live up to 20 years.

Source: Department of Conservation

- Waikato Times

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