Film tells story of fun-loving Moko

By Laura McQuillan

Doco shows dolphin who loved humans.

He may have hailed from a country renowned for its quirky animal stories, but Moko the dolphin was an international headline-grabber like no other.

The cheeky dolphin, who favoured human contact over his own kind, swam into the hearts of New Zealanders and visitors from around the world during his short life, making global news when he rescued a stranded mother whale and her calf; again when he trapped a woman at sea, refusing to let her back to land.

When his carcass was found on Matakana Island near Tauranga in 2010, news media around the world mourned his death.

Film-maker Amy Taylor, who had spent months swimming alongside Moko and filming his interactions with eager crowds, captured the moment his body was identified.

Her months of footage tell Moko's story in Soul in the Sea, which premieres at the New Zealand International Film Festival today.

A decision to make the film coincided with Moko's shift west from Mahia on the east coast of the North Island, which he had made his home since 2007, to Whakatane - near Taylor's home - in 2010.

There, volunteer "Moko Minders" put their lives on hold to ensure his safety as new crowds gathered to meet him.

Initially, Taylor thought finding the dolphin would be like a needle in a haystack - but it was Moko who found her.

"I saw a crowd of people, swam off [Ohope Beach] and I was quite a long way offshore and eventually he came up underneath me and kind of pushed me up out of the water. I'd never had a dolphin touch me before," she said.

More surprises were to follow: Moko brought her a dead baby hammerhead shark, and the two spent the afternoon swimming and playing fetch, once the crowds that gathered daily to meet Moko had left.

It was clear from that first swim that a dolphin like Moko was rare: indeed, he was one of only about 90 solitary dolphins recorded worldwide - 14 of which have been in New Zealand.

Also rare was his friendship with Whakatane woman Kirsty Carrington, who swam with Moko every day and made it her mission to keep the dolphin safe from fishermen and rough crowds.

Taylor said the duo were drawn to each other. "I can't really explain that, but they were. It was a different relationship to a pet but also she did take on quite a lot of feelings of responsibility for him, almost maternal, and that made things a lot harder for her in the end."

Taylor decided to tell Moko's story to raise awareness of the plight of other dolphins after watching The Cove, a documentary about Japan's dolphin hunts.

Even Moko, with his playful nature, had "a few enemies" in Whakatane and, later, Tauranga, said Taylor.

"Fishermen in general were not that keen on him when he would rip into their nets and steal their fish. When he [went] missing for a long period of time, we'd all been hoping that he'd joined a pod, which was unlikely, but we'd all been thinking that might be the case.

"Then getting the call that there was this dolphin washed up on Matakana Beach - we knew it was likely it was him."

Kirsty Carrington identified Moko from his missing teeth, and while his cause of death remains unknown, Taylor has suspicions that foul play was involved.

Film Festival preview

What: Soul in the Sea, documentary by Amy Taylor
Where and when: Screening in the New Zealand International Film Festival today at SkyCity Theatre, 6:30pm and Weds, 11:45am.

- AAP

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