Dawn Underwood was one of hundreds of Northland children who spent the unforgettable summer of 1955-56 playing in the shallows of the Hokianga Harbour with a dolphin named Opo.

On Saturday, she blinked back tears as a new bronze statue to Opo was unveiled on the Opononi waterfront - almost two years since the stone original was badly damaged in circumstances which remain unclear.

Ms Underwood, who was 5 years old when the dolphin won the hearts of New Zealanders, said she was amazed Opo was still being celebrated more than 60 years later.

She recalled how Opo would play with her and swim to the bottom to pick up bottles, tossing them into the air for spectators crowding the beachfront.


"It was a very special time," she said.

She also remembered the dreadful day locals realised their dolphin was missing, and how every man with a boat went out searching until Opo's body was found.

"That was an extremely sad time, but I'll remember always the joy that dolphin brought to us here in Opononi."

The blessing was conducted by Minister John Klaricich, who said Opo was "a very special animal which sought out human company" and left a lasting memory.

He hoped Opo's story would encourage a better understanding of the natural world, which the people of the Hokianga were so blessed to have on their doorstep.

Mr Klaricich said dolphins had special significance to Maori, who saw in them a connection to their ancestral traditions. They believed the second and third waka to arrive in New Zealand had been guided by dolphins summoned by their founding ancestor, Kupe.

Opononi man Ian Leigh-Mackenzie, who also played with Opo as a child and was the driving force behind the new statue, said it was a project full of good will.

"Everyone was so eager to help," he said.


They ranged from the bach owner who had donated the bronze to the expert who had restored the original without charge, and all those who had given money to the cause.

It also showed what a small community could achieve if it set its mind to a task.

Mr Leigh-Mackenzie said seeing people's reactions as the statue was unveiled made all the work worthwhile.

"It's just beautiful - a beautiful work of art."

More than 100 people gathered for Saturday's unveiling by Far North District councillor and Lotteries Arts and Heritage Committee chairwoman Sally Macauley.

Lotteries paid the lion's share of the $90,000 project, with significant contributions by pub charities and local residents.

The diverse crowd included many of those who had worked on or contributed to the project.