This week marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Opo the Friendly Dolphin in the Hokianga. She wowed the crowd for only one memorable summer - the summer of 1955 to 1956 - and became a legend.
Photographer, Tania Webb and I travelled to Opononi and talked to those who still remember her.
Books have been written, documentaries made, fishy tales told and even a song recorded about a phenomena that hit the Hokianga fifty years ago.
Opo the Friendly Dolphin, Opo the Gay Dolphin, a bottlenosed dolphin, a Hector's dolphin, girl dolphin, boy dolphin - she was known as many things.
Opo the magic, tragic dolphin swam into the bay at Opononi one summer and stole the hearts of the nation.
Through fable, fact and fiction, humankind has historically celebrated an affinity for friendly dolphins, but Opo's exceptional anthropomorphic tendencies elevated her - and sleepy 1950s Opononi - into instant, 20th century stardom.
Opo became famous for hanging around the beach playing with people. She let kids ride on her back - wildlife protection laws would call it a crime these days - and played to the camera like no other dolphin before or since.
Opo didn't want bigger kids riding on her, although small children could sit on her back, says Opononi publican Ian Leigh-McKenzie who was a boy at the time. But she liked to play with people, have them pat her and show off her ball handling skills.
"And she would nibble your toes."
Fifty years later, photos showing grown men trying to ride on the young dolphin's back make for sobering viewing among the many images of dolphin hysteria.
Locals still love to talk about their dolphin, and that heady summer when thousands of visitors were drawn to Opononi. The young dolphin was first seen in the harbour early in 1956, a lone creature following boats. She kept close and seemed unafraid, and soon boaties were scratching her with oars, and even petting her. For the rest of her short life the throb of a boat's motor would bring the dolphin near.
When summer came, Opo took to frolicking in the shallows at Opononi among swimmers. At first thought to be a male, she was named Opononi Jack in recognition of that other great dolphin mythologised in New Zealand history, Pelorus Jack.
She learnt to balance a ball - sometimes a beer bottle - on her nose and toss it high. The consummate performer would also turn over, roll the ball along her belly and flip it up with her tail.
As summer heated up, so did Opo-fever.
The crowd's cameras whirred and clicked. Documentary footage shows children holding hands in a ring as Opo leaps in and out. No child was ever harmed by her exuberant play.
One of several books memorialising Opo and, published in 1956, possibly the hottest off the press was Avis Acre's The Gay Dolphin of Opononi (no, not about a dolphin that swam for the other team).
The late writer Maurice Shadbolt, himself with strong Hokianga links, based his novel This Summers' Dolphin on the Opo phenomenon.
Pioneer New Zealand filmmaker Rudall Hayward made The Amazing dolphin of Opononi, one of several documentaries about Opo shown worldwide. And a poppy little folk song called Opo the Friendly Dolphin mooned about "fishy back rides and swishy tides, He's (sic) Opo the friendly dolphin..."
At the height of the Opo summer, thousands of people swamped the little settlement on some days. Business boomed but the village struggled to cope. The crowds flowed in and out of local tearooms, camping ground, hotels. The unsealed roads were choked.
Fifty years later, visitors still come asking about Opo at the pub, shops and the information centre at Omapere, with its tiny museum above.
The museum has possibly the best Opo archive there is. But one dolphin does not a history make, according to museum curator Alexa Whaley - "There is more to Hokianga's history than Opo." As the throngs came through that memorable summer, locals grew increasingly concerned about the dolphin's safety, especially after reports her fin had been winged by a potshot.
"Don't try to shoot our gay dolphin" warned a sign that appeared on the foreshore.
Escalating fears led to a protection group successfully seeking special protection for Opo - By Order of the Fisheries (Dolphin Protection) Regulations 1956, which was to become law on March 8.
But on that very day, the much loved dolphin didn't arrive at the beach as she usually did.
Two days later the people's playmate was found dead, jammed into rocks at nearby Koutu.
As the dead dolphin was towed by boat back to Opononi that evening a hush fell over the settlement. A large crowd lined the beach, watching in shocked silence as Opo came to the beach for the last time.
The magic summer was over.
When Opo died the country mourned. In Whangarei a girl's hockey team played wearing black armbands. Governor-General Sir Willoughby Norrie telegraphed his sympathy to the children of Opononi.
But even in death the Hokianga's famous dolphin was a spectacle. Crowds came to gawp at her sacking-draped body, hung from a tree for two days awaiting an Auckland War Memorial Museum expert who would take plaster casts.
Wreaths and other tributes lined the foreshore and the ground where her grave would be dug.
Opo the dolphin was buried with full Maori honours outside Opononi's newly completed RSA Hall. Some Maori considered her to be the incarnation of an ancestor, or the great navigator and first to discover Hokianga, Kupe himself.
An old photo shows local woman Rose Clarke - a five year old representing all the children of Hokianga - throwing sand into Opo's grave. Sculptor Russell Clark was later commissioned to make the statue of a boy and dolphin that stands on the waterfront near her grave.
Opo's star shone for one wonderful summer only, but her extraordinary story will live forever.
* The sad demise
Opo's trust of people may have led to her death.
She may have followed a boat in which people were fishing the mullet shoals with gelignite, and been caught in the blast. Whoever was responsible wedged the dead dolphin into rocks at Kouto to disguise the cause of her death, a theory claims.
And another holds that Opo's taste for fish was her undoing. Some fishers reputably didn't like a dolphin scaring away or feeding too readily from the local fish stock. Yet another theory has it that Opo could have died from injuries suffered when some heavy-weights tried to ride her the day before.
* Photos feature in exhibition
One celebration of Opo's extraordinary contribution to Northland sits fittingly with another celebrated Hokianga life, that of photographer and artist Eric Lee Johnson.
Many evocative images of those heady dolphin-summer days and an obsessed public were captured by Lee Johnson's camera.
He supplied all the Opo pictures used in the New Zealand Herald and Auckland Weekly News at the time, plus many that were printed internationally.
His well-known photo of local school teacher Mrs Goodwin embracing Opo in the water earned him the biggest fee anyone had ever been paid by the Herald for a photo - the princely sum of 10 pounds.
Lee Johnson's photos are featured in an exhibition called Shadow on the Land Te Hokianga, currently at the Whangarei Art Museum.
"Opo entranced the nation, and Lee Johnson's powerful, empathetic imagery ensured the world was entranced too, from New York to London," museum curator Scott Pothan said.
WEBSITE OF THE YEAR
APP OF THE YEAR