Ten pallbearers strained to lift a 3m-long, bright blue casket containi' />

Whakatane residents take Moko's coffin for one last cruise of the estuary

Ten pallbearers strained to lift a 3m-long, bright blue casket containing Moko the dolphin, much loved and missed, on to a boat.

Adorned with flowers, a dozen dolphin soft toys and two posters of his smiling face, the dolphin was surrounded by his most devout admirers and taken out to Whakatane's estuary for one last cruise around his favourite swimming spot.

The Bay of Plenty town held an elaborate memorial service for Moko yesterday, celebrating the summer he spent there entertaining swimmers and stealing fish from fishermen's nets.

Just months ago, he was snuggling with young children and jostling with the older ones, nicking their boogie boards and rubbing up against them.

"My grandchildren would spend three hours out there playing with him. He was a cheeky fella," said Anne Marshall, a local resident.

But last week Moko was found dead and decomposing on Matakana Island, offshore from Tauranga.

He was taken to Palmerston North for an autopsy that failed to find his cause of death, and then driven to Whakatane yesterday in a specially made wooden casket.

The town's businesses pitched in to make the day come together, some donating construction materials, another offering a boat, and one providing a professional paint job that completed the outsized and flamboyant - but otherwise human - coffin.

The ceremony began just before noon, with a flat-bed truck carrying the coffin inching along Whakatane's main street.

A growing group of people amassed alongside and by the time the procession reached the riverside, there were 100 children, parents and grandparents following on the bank.

"I came because I swam with him a few times. Moko was always down here. He was naughty - he tried to eat my foot once," said 17-year-old Gabrielle Tarau.

"I'm sad but happy at the same time. I knew he was going to die one day and now I know he's in a safe place."

Another 200 or so people waited by a stage erected in Mataatua Reserve.

Moko was welcomed by song, and tributes flowed for the animal, including one from a group of children from the local Little Orchard Preschool, who recited an original composition written in his honour.

Pouroto Ngaropo, a local hapu leader, fluently weaved Moko into Maori mythology, a smooth segue from ancestral waka to the fun-loving dolphin's emergence on the scene.

After a couple of hours, when clouds set in and chilled the previously brilliant day, the crowd began to scatter, leaving behind the media and Moko's "minders" who had watched over the dolphin in Whakatane and arrived yesterday in identical yellow T-shirts.

"There's never been a tangi or ceremony for a dolphin before. This is history being created today," said organiser Kirsty Carrington.

Finally, the bottlenose dolphin was carried from the stage into a van and driven to a boat ramp where he was lifted on to the Cascade, a 18m charter boat, and taken out one last time to Whakatane's waters.

Moko has since been driven to Tauranga and will be moved to Matakana Island today to be buried on the beach where he was found.

A children's book has been commissioned to immortalise Moko's legacy.

About 35 people from Mahia, where New Zealanders first met Moko, had planned to attend the ceremony - but miscommunication led them to think it would be held today, not yesterday.