A male orca found dead after becoming stranded in shallow water in Tauranga Harbour has been attacked by someone with a knife trying to steal his teeth.

Moby, a well-known popular mature male orca believed to be aged 50, is the first orca to have died in the harbour.

He was found by a local resident after becoming stranded in shallow water near mangroves. He was buried at an undisclosed location on December 6 three days later.

DOC's Tauranga biodiversity ranger, Karl McCarthy, said it was a sad discovery and "pretty disappointing" someone had taken a knife to Moby to try to take his teeth, which was an illegal act.

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"Unfortunately because Moby was found in a remote location, without someone coming forward with information we do not have any leads to launch any investigation," he said.

Mr McCarthy said the exact location Moby was buried would not be disclosed to ensure people did not try to dig up the remains to remove the orca's teeth.

Plus, the burial site was of significant cultural importance to local iwi, he said.

During a moving and respectful burial ceremony Moby was farewelled by Tauranga Moana iwi and hapu, DOC, the Orca Research Trust and local community, McCarthy said.

Shells, flowers and driftwood were placed on his grave by those who attended the burial.

The last major stranding of an orca in the district was on September 27, 2008, when about 2000 people took part in the dramatic rescue of Nobby stranded on Papamoa Beach.

Dr Ingrid Visser, founder of the Orca Research Trust (ORT), said Moby was found beachcast on a shallow area near the mangroves in Tauranga Harbour.

A man alerted the Department of Conservation, which then contacted the trust.

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"Once at the site we were able to confirm it was Moby, an adult male orca, who we had been documenting since the beginning of our research study in the early 1990s."

Visser said at first she was not sure it was Moby as there was a lot of water around his dorsal fin, but once she recognised his distinctive dorsal fin her heart sank.

"It is always sad when any animal dies especially a healthy one but when you get to know an orca like Moby as closely as I did it's even sadder. Moby was a big part of my life and it's a tragic loss," she said.

Visser said it was "very distasteful" and disgraceful that someone thought they could take advantage of Moby's death by trying to take a "trinket" for personal gain.

"It's a poor reflection on that individual and they should be ashamed of their actions."
  
Moby had clearly made a mistake while pursuing stingray, she said.

"New Zealand orca do have highly risky foraging habits when it comes to stingrays which the orca will go to any lengths to get," Visser said.

"Moby who was in the prime of his life, was in very good condition and he had no external damage and it looks like his death was the result of a tragic accident," she said.

"Of significance, orca were sighted leaving the Tauranga Harbour on the afternoon of November 28, four days prior to when Moby was found."

Visser said although local iwi had customary rights to be able to take bones and teeth from Moby, the kamatua agreed not to do so and believed he should be buried with dignity.

"This is a very sad time for us all, but I am grateful for the respect that Moby was shown by those who cared about him," she said.

DOC had asked people lucky enough to see orca in the harbour to respect the animal's space and keep well clear, espeically while they are feeding.

Some facts about Moby

-Possibly aged 50 when he died.
-More than 6.5m in long, and estimated weight of 6 to 7 tonnes.
-Featured in a scientific paper about cookie cutter shark bites.
-Dorsal fine had a distinct dent, likely caused by an entanglement when much younger.
-Travelled all around New Zealand, including regular visits to Manukau and Hokianga harbours.