Photographic records indicate that Pelorus Jack was a Risso’s dolphin, a species that’s incredibly hard to find in New Zealand. He was often described as white or albino, with distinctive grey shadings and a rounded head. Nobody has been able to certify the dolphin’s gender, but its size – which was reported to be between 2.7 metres (nine feet) and 4.3 metres (15 feet) – indicated that Pelorus Jack was in fact male. A Risso’s female doesn’t grow to more than 3.7 metres (12 feet) in size, whereas males tend to be four metres (13 feet) or larger.
First sighted in 1888, Pelorus Jack would personally escort the ships travelling between the capital Wellington and the upper South Island city of Nelson. He would join the vessels at the entrance of the Pelorus Sound (hence his name), swimming alongside the boats until they reached the treacherous French Pass, a narrow channel that separates D’Urville Island (at the northern tip of the South Island) from the mainland coast of the Tasman Bay.
The dolphin always confined himself to a specific area, never actually entering the French Pass. On a reverse journey he met ships that came out of the pass and accompanied them for approximately eight kilometres (4.5 miles) before swimming away. He would get quite close to passing boats and had a known affinity for surfing the bow waves.
In fact, Pelorus Jack was notoriously picky about his companions. He would often snub wooden hulled ships and sailing vessels, opting instead to accompany the most powerful, steel-hulled steamers – in other words, the types of ships that would produce the best bow waves for this playful dolphin to ride.
As the years went by, Pelorus Jack became a bit of a celebrity – practically a tourist attraction in his own right. American author Mark Twain and English writer Frank T. Bullen are some of the notable visitors who revered the iconic Risso’s dolphin.
His fame also attracted an unwelcome sense of malice. In 1904 a passenger aboard the SS Penguin tried to shoot poor Pelorus Jack; luckily a fleet of screaming passengers alerted the crew about the danger and they were able to restrain and disarm him. Pelorus Jack never accompanied the SS Penguin again and the steamer sank off the South Wellington Coast not much later – thus, reinforcing the superstition that a ship abandoned by the dolphin would ultimately meet its demise.
That episode led to growing public demands to grant Pelorus Jack some form of legal protection. It was around that time, too, that our hero was formally identified as a Risso’s dolphin. In 1904 the Governor, Lord Plunket, signed an Order in Council decree that made it illegal to take the species from the waters of the Cook Strait and its surroundings. The order came with punishable fines ranging between £5 and £100 and made New Zealand the first country in the world to grant legal protection to a single marine creature.
Nobody knows exactly how Pelorus Jack died. As he grew older, he definitely slowed down – and passing ships often reduced their speeds to follow their ageing companion. But eventually, the dolphin disappeared; the last sighting is believed to have been in April 1912.
It is rumoured that a group of Norwegian whalers in the Pelorus Sound harpooned the dolphin that year. There’s also an account of a deathbed confession by a man who believes he and his father killed the stranded Pelorus Jack after a storm. Then there’s Charlie Moeller’s version: the man, who maintained the marine light at the French Pass, claimed that the dolphin washed up on the beach where his carcass rotted away. Given the dolphin was 24 years old, right on the cusp of his species’ life expectancy, dying of old age was never ruled out of the picture.
The legend of Pelorus Jack continues to make its mark in the world today. A popular Scottish Country dance was named after the dolphin – incidentally, it features a set of alternating tandem half-reels now known as ‘dolphin reels’. Since 1989, Pelorus Jack has been used in the logo for the Inter-island ferry service that travels from Wellington to Picton via the Cook Strait. A chocolate bar was also named after him and in 2016 a life-size bronze sculpture was raised in Collinet Point, overlooking the French Pass, in his honour.