Cook Strait, which separates the North and South islands of New Zealand, has never been the safest place for shipping. Particularly dangerous was the French Pass (Te Aumiti), which is framed by sharp jagged rocks and characterized by strong underwater currents. Today, navigating this dangerous stretch of water is easier thanks to the modern navigational aids. But once upon a time a completely wild dolphin helped ships to get through there safely.
Pelorus Jack was a wild Risso’s dolphin. This species of dolphin, named in honor of the scientist Antoine Risso, lives in all oceans of the world and usually stays close to the shores. Like many wild animals, Risso’s dolphins normally avoid people. Sadly, sometimes they get caught in fishing nets or are killed in collisions with ships. Risso’s dolphins are not considered endangered, although their population is suffering from pollution and overfishing. This is just to say that Risso’s dolphins and people are not friends.
Pelorus Jack was a special kind of dolphin – although it was completely wild, Pelorus Jack helped ships through dangerous waters of the Cook Strait.
Pelorus Jack was first spotted in 1888, when the schooner Brindle approached the French Pass. At first, the ship’s crew wanted to hunt a beautiful light-colored 4 meter long dolphin but the captain’s wife dissuaded them. The navigators then noticed that the dolphin was behaving strangely – it seemed to be trying to show the ship the most suitable path. Or at least the crew interpreted its behavious like that. The schooner began following the animal and sailed safely through the strait, avoiding underwater rocks and dangerous currents.
It didn’t take long for Pelorus Jack to gain its name and reputation. Various ships bravely followed the dolphin, who guided them along the safest possible route through the dangerous channel. Newspapers in New Zealand picked up the story and locals began looking for Pelorus Jack.
Over time, Pelorus Jack became one of New Zealand’s most famous animals. And for a good reason – not a single ship that Pelorus Jack helped has fallen victim to the dangerous waters.
Pelorus Jack often met ships in Pelorus Bay. Also, pelorus is an ancient navigational device and it is possible that the dolphin was named after it.
Not all people were friendly to Pelorus Jack. In 1904, an unidentified man from the ferry SS Penguin tried to shoot the dolphin, but Pelorus Jack survived. Soon after shooting at dolphins was banned by law. When the SS Penguin sank in 1909, people said that the accident happened because Pelorus Jack memorized this ship.
Pelorus Jack disappearance in 1912. People thought that it could have been captured by whalers, but it is more likely that Pelorus Jack died from old age. A local lighthouse keeper claimed to have seen it’s lifeless body.
Pelorus Jack was not forgotten. The British warship HMS New Zealand (1911-1922) had two doga named Pelorus Jack. Pelorus Jack is also mentioned in many literary works, and a Scottish dance was named after it. In 1989, it became the symbol of the Interislander, a ferry service across the Cook Strait.