Thursday, August 09, 2007

Friendship blooming between dolphin and man

A dolphin that has been hanging around the Mahia boat ramp over winter is forming a great friendship with long-time resident Bill Shortt, who is teaching it to play ball.

The bottlenose dolphin came into the Mokatahi area at Mahia Beach at Easter. Since then it has been following Mr Shortt in his dinghy most mornings when he goes to check on his crayfish pots.
"It scared me at first, as it liked bumping into my dinghy and sending it sideways. On a number of occasions I got soaking wet when it jumped out of the water, which is not to pleasant on a cold winter’s morning," he said.

But over time he realised the beautiful creature was just trying to play.

"He chatters away to me and, believe it or not, he actually grins — he pops his head out of the water and actually smiles."

Residents have named the dolphin Moko after the the large Mokatahi headland that it swims below.

Mr Shortt believes Moko is a male, about two metres long, and he estimates that he weighs about 150kg — "He is a very healthy specimen."

Fascinated by his new boating companion, Mr Shortt found himself when not in his boat or working, spending a lot of time observing the creature’s antics from the windows of his home.
He did some research and read that dolphins were reasonably easy to train. When not out in his boat, He bought his buddy a red ball and threw it several times in front of the boat where Moko was swimmimg.

At first Moko ignored the ball but after a dozen or so shots it started to perform, throwing the ball metres into the air and shovelling it along the water at top speed.

"The dolphin actually threw the ball into the dinghy with one shot," he said.

"I live at Mahia Beach, so get a bird’s-eye view of its antics around a marker buoy," he said.
"It has been fascinating and in the 50-odd years I have been around Mahia Peninsula I have seen some remarkable actions in the sea . . . but nothing like this," he said.

"He has actually followed boats right to the shoreline," Mr Shortt said.

He had patted his friend, but did not fancy swimming with him. Getting splashed by him in winter was enough, he said.

But despite his joy in playing with Moko and observing him, Mr Shortt is fearful for the creature’s survival.

"My biggest fear is he will get tangled up in a net.

"This is going to happen — sooner or later he will get caught up in a net."

Moko has not been seen for the past three days.

Mr Shortt hopes he has headed off to find a mate, rather than getting tangled up with something more ominous.

His fears are shared by Department of Conservation staff, who are urging sightseers to keep their distance and treat the mammal with respect.

The dolphin is of the same type as the legendary Opo, which mingled with swimmers at Opononi in Northland during the summer of 1955-56.

It sought out human contact and would even let children ride on its back.

New Zealand mourned when Opo died in March 1956, possibly as the result of a gelignite blast in the water.

DoC programme manager Jamie Quirk said the Mahia dolphin presented a great opportunity for residents and visitors to see a marine mammal in the wild, but people had to behave responsibly around it — giving it a broad berth and keeping boat speeds well down in the area.

He believes Mahia’s winter visitor is a female.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"