Richard Robinson

Day of the dolphin

SailGP wanted to run a yacht race in a marine mammal sanctuary. They made a plan in the event of dolphins swimming into the course. Dolphins happened. They stuck to the plan. The racing was wildly successful. Is it just me, or does this seem like a good outcome for New Zealand?

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I stood on the shore of Lyttelton harbour, squinting in the sun. Each emerald wave was topped with pearly white lace, driven by a building easterly. As a life-long sailor, just the breath of that cold wind is a buzz—unharnessed energy passing me by.

Other sailors were feeling it too. But they were hunkered down in the carbon pods of the F50 foiling catamarans, poking their radios, and waiting.

Racing had been moved from Auckland just 12 weeks ago, and organisers had scrambled to prepare the Lyttelton event. Being both a working port and a marine mammal sanctuary for the nationally vulnerable Hector’s dolphins brought myriad complications. These were not insurmountable, but the plan hadn’t been followed during the previous year’s event, when racing was allowed to continue despite dolphins being sighted on the course.

Today was different. The dolphin—just one dolphin—was intent on persistent loops around the centre of the course. Despite having dozens of cameras desperately panning for things to film, the dolphin in question didn’t appear in the broadcast. Neither did anyone appear to spot it from shore. (Conspiracy theorists, start your engines.) Only the 11 dedicated dolphin observers could track its movements from some 50 metres away, so as to avoid modifying its natural behaviour.

To be fair, this is the smallest dolphin in the world, about about the size of golden retriever, with a similar temperament—they will bound up to any boat in the harbour and surf on the bow wave or skip along its wake. They’re the colour of an overcast sky but for a sooty paintbrush stroke that appears to describe the flow of water along their glossy flanks. A crescent fin on top, two dish-shaped pectoral fins on the side.

Hector’s dolphins hug bays and river mouths during summer, but in winter appear to move deeper offshore. Some conservationists say restrictions on net fishing need to be pushed much further out. Recent acoustic research by Hannah Williams at the University of Otago shows the dolphins there regularly cross the four-nautical-mile line of restriction to feed where fishers are working.

Across the next four hours, as the broadcast window ebbed away, the crowd divided into those who were frustrated but tolerant, and a minority who were frustrated but outspoken.

The band played on—Dave Dobbyn chose ‘Whaling’—as punters shuffled back to waiting buses. What happened next appeared to depend more upon who you were rather than what had actually taken place.

Those who had absorbed too much alcohol and ultraviolet light across the day began to rage, lashing out at greenies, officials, scientists and dolphins everywhere.

SailGP chief executive Sir Russell Coutts abandoned the high moral ground and swerved wildly off script to castigate the same agencies who had worked to put the event on at short notice. His commentary was laced with references to “minority interests” which dragged the event from sport into a social media pile-on as opportunists cleverly leveraged the dolphin as a totem of “moral and cultural roadblocks” to economic development and future prosperity, as if either of those things would be guaranteed with a public butchery of a rare dolphin in front of 50 million people on TV.

But the behaviour on the live event feed online was different. Viewers were supportive of the delay and “waited pretty happily”, even when the day was called off.

“I had just watched SailGP do the right thing when it was the hard thing to do. Not the profitable or the television-friendly thing, but the right thing,” wrote yachting journalist Kai Yves on the die-hard sailing fan site Scuttlebutt. “In a way, this event ended up being an accidental reflection of the promise of SailGP, of what the organisation wants to and can be— a league that gives equal balance and airtime to environmental responsibility and amazing competition.”

And isn’t this the point? Isn’t this what responsible event management looks like? And given the prospect of an environmental disaster unfolding on live television, did organisers have a practical or moral alternative?

There is an open question about whether the management plan was proportional to the risk, but that is a setting for experts and planners to decide. That the racing was postponed when the risk was high, and then successfully held the following day, suggests the plan worked.

There are just five sites in New Zealand where we put marine mammals ahead of other activities, so for those uncomfortable with a compromise, perhaps a marine mammal sanctuary shouldn’t be the first choice of location.

Not all activities are held to the same standards, however. A total of 14 Hector’s dolphins have been drowned in commercial fishing nets since September last year (12 in trawl gear, 2 in set nets), all but one of them on the Canterbury coast. Data suggests that fisheries should be held to the same standards as other marine activities, but unlike SailGP, these deaths did not happen in front of a grandstand and cameras, but rather wrapped in nylon beneath the thin veil of the sea and data in a DOC spreadsheet.

As a sailor and business owner, I’m in the demographic that most people assume should be bug-eyed with fury and thirsty for dolphin blood. But I find it hard to see past a weekend that we should all be celebrating.

The trade-offs between the environment and economy being advertised by critics seem like a fallacy. Can we not maintain the integrity of the environment and live sustainably within its embrace too? Could the language of this unwelcome compromise just be code for commercial expediency?

It appeared to this bystander that New Zealand won twice on the weekend—the first was the approval of a world that yearns for natural balance and responsibility, the second when the Black Foils came searing across the finish line with a 24-metre-high fern emblazoned on their wing sail. Both appeared to burnish the reputation of New Zealand in the eyes of those watching from a distance.

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