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It is almost certain that a large, friendly bottlenose dolphin delighting crowds at Waikanae Beach at Gisborne is Mahia's internationally famous Moko.

His move 80km up the coast to find new playmates has delighted many but given at least one person the fright of his life.

Seasoned ocean athlete Brian Wilson said encountering the dolphin left him fearing for his life.

He came across Moko about a kilometre off the beach as he was paddling in his outrigger canoe.

Delight in seeing the animal turned quickly to fear when Mr Wilson tried to return to shore.

"It was a fight to get back to the beach. He kept trying to turn me around. He threw me off a couple of times. I was starting to get scared that I would not be able to get in."

Moko was charging up to the waka and Mr Wilson had concerns it might not hold together.

He has worked with dolphins at Marineland in Napier and has trained in the sea for the past three decades but says he has never seen a dolphin so huge.

"I just want to warn other people who might be going out to train or even swim. He was so strong, a smaller person might not have made it back to shore."

Mr Wilson made slow progress as Moko kept turning him around. Then he caught a wave and got away. The dolphin followed him into shallow water.

Department of Conservation ranger Jamie Quirk said this behaviour was typical of Moko. He was "pretty confident" the dolphin was Moko.

"It is definitely a male bottlenose dolphin about the same size as Moko and he has not been seen at Mahia for the past few days."

Bill Shortt, of Mahia Beach, said the people of Mahia would be devastated if Moko did not return.

"Our boy has been missing for three days now."

He was last seen following crayfisherman Tom Wairau to Waikokopu, 8km north of Mahia Beach, on Monday.

Moko has been at Mahia for the past two and a half years and become a much-loved icon of their community, even if he does sometimes misbehave.

His affection for people had made him the star attraction at Mahia, and news of his antics had attracted people from all over the world.

"Mayor Meng Foon better send us a big cheque if he has moved to Gisborne," says Mr Shortt, Moko's Mahia guardian.

He thinks Moko would have "got in tow" with a trawler and followed it to Gisborne.

Mr Quirk said DoC's advice was: "Moko is a wild animal and should be treated with respect. People need to be extremely careful around him."

Moko's visit could be short-lived. With a storm forecast to pass through the district in the next few days, Mr Quirk said it was possible Moko would head back to waters he knows well.

- NZPA