One of Northland's most photographed tourist icons has been decapitated - but it's not clear whether the beheading was the result of deliberate vandalism or a prank gone wrong.
An Opononi resident discovered the damage to the famous statue of Opo, the friendly dolphin, during an early-morning walk yesterday. The head of the boy catching a ride on Opo's back had been snapped off and was lying nearby in two pieces.
The famous dolphin frequented the beaches of South Hokianga in the summer of 1955-56, even allowing children to ride on its back, until its death in mysterious circumstances - possibly at the hands of an aggrieved fisherman.
While upset by the damage, Opononi residents were confident the head, which has been broken off once before, would be repaired and replaced quickly.
The first Wilma Ayrton knew of the damage was when a reporter phoned her. A resident of Opononi for the past 13 years, she grew up in nearby Omanaia and remembers watching Opo frolicking in the shallows and following her husband's boat.
"It's just terrible. I've had grandchildren come here and sit on the statue for a photo. I'm very sad about it," she said.
Others, however, were more philosophical. John Penney, who works as a butcher at the Opononi Four Square next to the statue, said the head had come off once before, about 20 years ago.
"One of the locals found the head in two pieces. It could have been an accident. All we're concerned about as locals is that it's put together again - it's the most photographed thing in the Hokianga," he said.
The stone fragments had been passed to the town handyman and Mr Penney was confident the sculpture would be back in one piece "pretty smartly".
The damage could have been inflicted by a thickset hotel patron posing for a picture in the early hours of the morning, he said.
Constable Nore Martin, of Rawene police, was among those checking out the damage yesterday.
It was unclear whether the beheading was an accident or deliberate. He urged anyone who knew what had happened to call the Rawene police on (09) 405 7760.
"It's not such a good look when one of the icons of the area is damaged," Mr Martin said.
Omapere contractor Dave Bhana said he had chased away a group of children trying to pull the boy's head off a week earlier.
The statue, by sculptor Russell Clark, is in front of the Opononi Hotel and across the road from the beach.