He appeared on Easter Monday, 2007, flashing his permanent smile for the first time to fisherman Bill Shortt in a small dinghy off Mahia Peninsula in Hawke’s Bay.
He was named “Moko” for the Mokotahi headland where he frolicked, and Shortt spent more than two years watching him play with the hordes of people who visited. The “big fella” continued to shadow the fisherman, once almost climbing into the dinghy to present him with a seahorse. The two found they shared an interest in fishing, and women in red bikinis, so it was only natural for a special kind of friendship to develop—Shortt soon declared himself Moko’s “unofficial best mate”.
When in May 2008 Moko made world headlines by guiding two stranded pygmy sperm whales back to sea, he earned the public affection that had once been given to other celebrity dolphins—Pelorus Jack, a Risso’s dolphin famous for guiding ships to safety through treacherous waters of Tasman Bay and French Pass, and Opo, the affectionate bottlenose from Hokianga Harbour.
He was portrayed as a hero, a healer and a delinquent, but when reports of aggression hit the media, tensions and conflict grew along with the misunderstanding of this wild animal that many people had grown to love. Some people stalked Moko relentlessly, while local fishermen fumed over stolen catch or broken gear.
Then, one day, he left Mahia—following a fishing boat blaring loud rock music out to sea and up the east coast—first to Gisborne, then a few weeks later to Whakatane.
This is where I met him, off Ohope Beach in January. I heard his whistles and clicks and felt his rubbery skin and strength when he lifted me up in the water. We played catch with a dead juvenile hammerhead shark until he lost interest and stole a boogie board from a swimmer instead. I soon learned that Moko was the boss—he wasn’t aggressive but could hurt people if they didn’t want to play a game by his rules.
He attracted a new group of admirers at Ohope, mostly women, and while filming a documentary on the subject, I became part of that harem. We got to know his quirks, his favourite fishing spots, where he liked to sleep, the noises he made when he was excited or annoyed, and that he didn’t much like his fins being touched but enjoyed being massaged with seaweed. We knew the sound of his breath and often heard him before we saw him, especially at night. Before long he was falling asleep next to us in the water, what seemed like the ultimate sign of trust. As each summer day went by, he got deeper under our skins; even the hardened dredging boat skipper dreamed about him. (Moko often slept by his boat at night and woke him up in the early hours.)
I wondered why Moko’s solitary presence tugged at our heartstrings, and why he appealed so much to women—maybe we had begun to see him as an abandoned child instead of a wild dolphin. Whatever the case, there seemed to be some primal connection that I haven’t felt with other animals, and the simple act of communing with another intelligent and playful mammal actively seeking companionship was deeply moving.
Crowds came, conflicts arose, winter came along with floods and earthquakes and then, once again, Moko followed the same fishing boat up the coast, listening to AC/DC all the way. Next stop Tauranga, a hectic harbour and busy holiday town, and the city where I live. But after three days of his usual tricks, he went missing.
We found him over a month later, washed up dead on Matakana Island, almost unrecognisable. Just as his sudden appearance remains a mystery, so does his death—the necropsy was inconclusive. At six years old he was not quite a teenager in dolphin years and far from the usual 45-year lifetime for bottlenose dolphins.
Hundreds of people attended his funeral, writing on his coffin or sending tributes online. He was taken to the bay where he often played, seaweed was gathered for his grave and he was buried on Matakana Island, under the leading lights for the harbour entrance.
Local Maori explained how Moko’s journey up the east coast mirrored that of the Takitimu waka centuries before. He was seen as a kaitiaki and descendant of the whales and dolphins that followed the original migration.
Unanswered questions still linger in Moko’s wake. Why do these rare “solitary sociable” dolphins choose people over their own kind? And could they be studying our behaviour, just as we study theirs?