Our friends in need

By Geoff Cumming

Photo / Anke Kugler
Photo / Anke Kugler

"It's just amazing - if you talk to people about dolphins their eyes light up," says Raewyn Peart, author of a new book exploring our relationship with dolphins. "There's a sense of joy and delight that we don't see with any old animal. It would be very sad for us if we don't have them around our shores - and obviously very sad for the dolphins."

Dolphins fascinate humans. Not content with admiring their grace and power, we try to communicate with them, train them, swim with them, learn from them. We've even used them for military purposes.

Their willingness to engage with us feeds our curiosity. In New Zealand waters dolphins have rescued swimmers, guided disoriented whales to safety, shielded humans from a great white shark. Resident dolphins have become celebrities, luring visitors to coastal settlements such as Opononi, Golden Bay, Kaikoura, Napier and Mahia.

Yet we are as much their foe as their friend. The six species found in New Zealand waters are all threatened to varying degrees by human activities, with one, Maui's dolphin, likely past the point of no return.

The threats come from fishing, tourist boats, pollution and aquaculture.

Peart believes we've taken them for granted. "A lot of our dolphins are in real trouble and we need to do something about that."

Peart is policy director for the Environmental Defence Society and a lawyer and economist known for heavyweight analysis of environmental issues. Her previous books have focused on policy failings in resource management, coastal development, marine mammal protection and the oceans.

Her latest work, Dolphins of Aotearoa, is a departure: a social history tracing our affinity with dolphins and the work of scientists to understand them and the threats they face. With nature specialists Craig Potton Publishing in charge, the pictures are as engaging as Peart's stories.

The generation who grew up watching Flipper on TV knew all about Opo, the playful dolphin that drew tourists and American TV crews to the remote Hokianga Harbour in 1956. Well before then a dolphin named Pelorus Jack had put New Zealand on the map, attracting international fame by leading steamers on the Wellington-Nelson run through French Pass and "challenging late-19th century perceptions of the relationship between humans and marine life". Postcards celebrated "the only fish in the world protected by Act of Parliament".

Peart unearths less familiar stories of dolphin-human interaction: with Horace in Napier in the 1970s; Aihe of Golden Bay; Maui at Kaikoura; and more recently Moko the "pushy" dolphin who played (sometimes too boisterously) with swimmers at Mahia before moving north to Gisborne, Whakatane and Tauranga. After her body washed up on Matakana Island, a memorial service drew hundreds.

These dolphins were routinely credited with rescuing swimmers (Moko was also seen to help a pair of disoriented whales to safety) and forming close friendships with local "guardians". Scientists, too, have been changed by their dolphin encounters, Peart writes.

"For some, it was the beginning of a passion, a romance, even a love affair with a member of another species. Others established a strong spiritual link with dolphins - a profound bonding which they struggle to describe in words."

In less-enlightened times, punters could roll up to Marineland in Napier, Mt Maunganui and Orewa to watch dolphins jump through hoops or (at Napier) be fed by Charlie Brown the chimpanzee. The high casualty rate and growing awareness of their intelligence led to a change in public sentiment towards keeping dolphins in captivity.

Like humans, dolphins have large brains compared to body size, particularly the "grey matter" associated with high-level cognitive functions. Researchers have found they have "wide ranging intellectual competencies" and dolphin communities use advanced social systems. Peart is intrigued by the female dominance of dolphin society. Calves spend a long socialisation period with their mothers. Though dolphins have multiple sexual partners, they form lifelong relationships with a few.

"Here we have an animal that is really intelligent, probably the closest in the animal kingdom to humans. They have the ability to empathise with another living creature and assist them when they are in trouble. And they seem to be able to resolve things with less conflict and violence compared to human society."

Attempts to understand dolphins involved some dodgy early experiments. US scientist John Lilly, undeterred by initial disasters, flooded several rooms in his laboratory to create a "mutually-adapting area" where human and dolphin could live together. An area with a bedroom, kitchen and office, was flooded to a depth of 55cm so the dolphin could swim in the company of Lilly's female research assistant. When she slept, the dolphin rested by her bed. The experiment was called off after 10 weeks - the researcher had failed to teach the dolphin to talk.

But Lilly's research and subsequent campaigning against whaling inspired young New Zealand teacher and diving enthusiast Wade Doak. Returning from a dive at the Poor Knights Islands in 1975, Doak and friends had a life-changing encounter when their runabout was surrounded by bottlenose dolphins. They entered the water and began to imitate the dolphins' movements. The dolphins mimicked the divers in return, teaching the humans new techniques for an extraordinary hour. Doak and wife Jan embarked on further experiments to communicate with dolphins, using sound and a specially designed "dolphin suit" complete with fake-fin hands. The couple sold their Matapouri house and moved into a bush barn to fund work which raised awareness of dolphins and inspired more scientific research.

But stories of human-dolphin interaction and our efforts to understand them only serve to reinforce Peart's point: "If we take them for granted we won't have them. I think the science is very clear that we are pushing these dolphins to the brink."

In the Bay of Islands, the bottlenose dolphin population has plummeted after poorly-managed tourist boat activity in the 1990s. In Doubtful Sound, calf survival has plunged for an isolated bottlenose dolphin population after a combination of more tour boats and an increase in freshwater discharged from the Lake Manapouri power station. Bottlenose dolphins are now listed as nationally endangered.

Common dolphins became increasingly uncommon off the West Coast after trawling for jack mackerel was ramped up. At Admiralty Bay in the Marlborough Sounds, mussel farms threaten the winter feeding grounds of a group of dusky dolphins that spend summer entertaining tourists at Kaikoura.

Off Canterbury, gill net fishers claimed hundreds of Hector's dolphins a year until a sanctuary was established; but even that had its limitations. Their North Island cousin, Maui's dolphin, is now thought to be largely confined to a 120km stretch of the west coast. Their population, estimated at between 48 and 65 adults of breeding age, is not much more than the number of humans employed in New Plymouth's fishing and fish processing industry. Orca are listed as nationally critical; only about 200 remain in New Zealand waters.

Peart gives due credit to New Zealand and visiting scientists for research establishing the population trends and pinpointed the threats, including Otago University's Liz Slooten and Steve Dawson, Auckland's Rochelle Constantine and orca researcher Ingrid Visser. Trouble is, when scientists have blown the whistle, management responses have been tortuous and timid.

Peart counts herself among those who've taken dolphins for granted. Despite her background, their plight passed her by until, seven years ago, moves to increase protection for Hector's and Maui's dolphins prompted a court challenge and Slooten approached the Environmental Defence Society for help.

"Liz had these maps showing how many were being caught in fishing nets. I had no idea - I didn't even know about the different species.

"It made me think: If I, who had spent many years seeing dolphins while sailing the coast and researching environmental issues, hadn't appreciated what was happening to these animals, what about the New Zealand public?

"Now we have dolphins on the brink of extinction it's a real wake-up call. New Zealanders do like to think we are environmentally conscious but almost in the public arena dolphins have slipped away.

"We need to think about our relationship with dolphins in a different way, think about what we are doing in the environment and make space for them. That may mean we have to give some things up."

Dolphins of Aotearoa by Raewyn Peart. Craig Potton Publishing. RRP: $59.99.

- NZ Herald

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