Dozens of people were thrilled by a wildlife show only metres offshore as a pod of 10 bottlenose dolphins made their way up Whangarei Harbour yesterday.

What most spectators watching the dolphins passing close to Tamaterau and Onerahi did not see was a pod of orca near Whangarei Heads that may have frightened their smaller cousins into safer waters.

They were moving up harbour in a determined manner, staying close to shore, coming to the surface only to breathe and staying well under water the rest of the time. They passed Tamaterau at about 10.30am, came past Onerahi, swimming under the jetty and hugging the shore past George Point, and were near Kissing Point, their most in-harbour reach, at about 12pm.

Keeping their heads down, a pod of bottlenose dolphins in Whangarei Harbour yesterday were probably evading orca seen earlier off Parau Bay. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Keeping their heads down, a pod of bottlenose dolphins in Whangarei Harbour yesterday were probably evading orca seen earlier off Parau Bay. Photo / Michael Cunningham

The dolphins' behaviour had many spectators thinking the animals were too busy feeding to display their usual acrobatics on the surface. That "stealth mode" is typical of dolphins evading orca, said dolphin expert Floppy Halliday who had taken a report on the Whale Watch hotline at 10am yesterday that a pod of orca was off Parau Bay.

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"Orca aren't always interested in dolphins but the dolphins don't know that," Ms Halliday said. "If they're hearing something [threatening] they'll stay really close together under the surface, keeping their heads down. Staying close to shore makes it easier for them to hear and also to evade orca."

Dolphin watchers included nearby residents who had seen them from their houses and went to the beach for a closer look, pedestrians and passing motorists, many who drove from one vantage point to another as the creatures came up harbour.

Dozens of people were thrilled by the show. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Dozens of people were thrilled by the show. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Four-year-old Reef Turner was speechless with excitement when the pod swam only metres from him, underneath the Onerahi jetty as he was standing on it.

Also getting her first look at dolphins outside a marine park was 61-year-old Kathy Taylor.

"I'm amazed," she said. "All my life I've wanted to see dolphins in the wild, and they're so close. It's wonderful."

Still keeping a low profile, the dolphins went back past Onerahi, stealthily making their way toward Whangarei Heads just before 1pm.