Fond memories of Elizabeth the sea elephant

CHARLIE GATES
Last updated 05:00 13/08/2012

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Red-zone residents have fond memories of a sea elephant that made the Avon River her home in the 1980s.

Elizabeth the sea elephant lived in the Avon and Heathcote rivers from the late 1970s until her death in 1985. She could often be seen sunbathing on the riverbank or on the road.

The sea elephant, which weighed more than a tonne, is remembered by red-zone residents as she would often bask on the banks of the Avon in Dallington and would even head as far upriver as Barbadoes St.

A Press photograph from 1983 shows Elizabeth sunbathing next to Fitzgerald Ave as cars pass within metres.

Former Dallington resident Wendy Cooper remembers Elizabeth making regular visits to the stretch of river near her house.

''One Friday night I came home from town on the bus at about 8.30pm,'' she said.

''I was walking along the riverbank and there was this breathing noise behind me, but there was no-one around.

''It was a bit nerve-racking. I looked in the river and she was floating up the river alongside me.''

Elizabeth's Avon residency was reported in detail by The Press.

It described her as ''a familiar feature of Christchurch waterways'' and ''an old friend''.

Elizabeth's habit of sunbathing in the road meant she was eventually hit by a car in Woolston in 1985.

She was not hurt, even though ''it took several minutes for 10 people to lift the car off her'',  The Press reported.

''Ministry of Transport officers scared her back into the Heathcote River using sirens and lights,'' it said.

The regional fisheries officer with the ministry, R V Reid, told The Press that Elizabeth was free to roam the streets.

''Under the Marine Mammals Protection Act, 1978 we can't disturb her at all. She could go into Cathedral Square and bask in the sunshine for a week and we couldn't do anything about it,'' he said, sounding like a true civil servant.

Reid acknowledged the public affection for Elizabeth.

''Imagine the outcry from a lot of people in Christchurch if we took her away,'' he said.

When Elizabeth died in 1985 it was front page news. She was found dead on Scarborough Beach and a Ministry of Fisheries autopsy concluded she died of a viral infection.

A Press photograph showed her body being loaded on to a truck.

Senior fisheries officer Ken Ford can be seen in the photograph gently touching her face, behind him a man in white overalls appears to be wiping his eyes.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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