One day in 1888, the steamer Wainui was completing a crossing of the Cook Strait, the body of water that separates the North and South Islands of New Zealand, when the captain spotted something unusual. The steamer was travelling around the outer edge of Pelorus Sound before heading through French Pass on its approach to Nelson on the South Island when a large white ‘fish’ about 4 meters in length appeared and began surfing in the bow wave of the ship. As the captain watched, the ‘fish’ would dive under the ship and surf in the bow wave on the opposite side. This behavior continued for about fifteen minutes before the fish disappeared.
The next day the fish, which turned out to be a dolphin, again appeared. And also on the following day, and soon began to be seen whenever any steamship steamed past Pelorus Sound.
This was Pelorus Jack. And he, or she (no one knows for sure), would become part of New Zealand history.
He was named “Pelorus” for the location and supposedly “Jack” was a common name given to any whale-like mammal. For the next 24 years—you read that right—Pelorus Jack, always alone, would show up alongside ships and ‘escort’ them in an 8 km stretch of dangerous water at Pelorus Sound before disappearing when the ships reached French Pass.
Year after year, Jack met the steamers and over the years his popularity increased. People would specifically take the journey in order to see Pelorus Jack. He was seen by thousands of passengers throughout the years, and if the ships did not see Jack at first, they would often wait for him to show up. “Here comes Pelorus Jack!” travellers would cry when he first approached.
Initially, there was some disagreement what kind of animal Pelorus was. He was difficult to see, photography was in its infancy and most often only blurred photographs could be obtained. At first, he was thought to be an Antarctic White Whale and later a Goosebeak Whale. It was only in 1904 that it was determined that Pelorus Jack was a Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus), a species distinctly uncommon in New Zealand. In fact, as of 1990 only 14 Risso’s dophins have ever been seen in New Zealand.
Risso’s dolphins are characterized by having a bulbous snout rather than the long elongated snout or beak of more commonly known dolphins like Flipper and those you might see at Sea World.
Stories vary but in 1904 or 1905, someone aboard the ship SS Penguin took a shot a Pelorus Jack and wounded him. Another reference claims that Pelorus Jack was inadvertently struck by the Penguin’s bow and suffered an injury. In any case, folklore has it that Pelorus Jack never again led the Penguin or at least kept his distance. It is felt that the dolphin could recognize specific ships by the sound and vibrations of their screws, and for what it is worth, the SS Penguin sunk in the Cook Strait in 1909 with the loss of 75 lives.
In part because of the tourist draw, in 1904 specific legislation was passed in the New Zealand Parliament protecting Risso’s dolphins in the Cook Strait.
A postcard showing Pelorus Jack and the words “The only fish in the world protected by Act of Parliament,” was widely distributed. Pelorus Jack’s fame continued to increase. In London in 1910, a Christmas edition of the The Illustrated London News featured a full-page picture of Pelorus Jack on its cover.
Songs were written about him, a Scottish dance was created in his honor and a chocolate candy bar named after him. Notables such as Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain travelled around the world to see him.
Why did Pelorus Jack follow or lead the ships? Was he lonely? To rub his skin against the boats to dislodge barnacles? Did ships churn up squid for him to feed on? No one knows.
Pelorus Jack was last seen in April, 1912. It is not clear whether he died of old age or was harpooned (there was a Norwegian whaler in the area). Here is what was written.
‘Jack’ has been rightly termed one of the wonders of the world. Many visitors to New Zealand have made him on of the ‘sights’ to be viewed during their itinerary, and many who were at first skeptical as to the existence of such a creature have gone away convinced…
‘Pelorus Jack’ is beloved by all seafaring men whose ships he has befriended, his coming formed a pleasant break in the monotomy of the daily round of toil. If he is dead, more’s the pity; if he has been slaughtered, more’s the shame.
– New Zealand Times
Since 1989, Pelorus Jack has been incorporated in the logo of the Interislander Ferry, the ferry service that travels between the North and South Islands.
What is the heritage of Pelorus Jack? Certainly an interesting part of New Zealand history. But it is also important to note that at the time all this was occurring, animals such as fish, dolphins and whales were only seen as something to be exploited, killed for food or for their skins, oil or bones. Pelorus Jack was one of the first animals to help change this perception. He was seen as friendly and intelligent, and the protection of his species by law for these reasons was a first. As such, Pelorus Jack was an early ambassador for his brethren in the wild, and contributed to a more-enlightened view of the treatment of marine animals and dolphins in particular.
References include: “Dolphins of Aotearoa – Living with New Zealand Dolphins”, by Raewyn Peart, 2013.
1) Pelorus Jack. Marlborough Historical Society – Marlborough Museum Archives