In early 1955 three bottlenose dolphins made their way through the waves at the entrance of Hokianga Harbor and into Omapere Bay. Situated on the west coast of the Northland district of the North Island, this bay opens out into the Tasman Sea. A small retirement community, Opononi, lays nestled on its shore.
Local fishermen, seeing the dorsal fins in the water, assumed the dolphins were sharks and within a week, two of the three dolphins disappeared, most likely killed. The surviving dolphin later determined to be a female was only a year old and motherless. She started following boats leaving the harbor but seemed unwilling to cross the waves that blocked her way into the open sea.
Fisherman, now aware she was a dolphin, began to look for her when they entered and left the harbor, and in time she began to approach more closely to the boats. One member of a crew placed an oar in the water and the dolphin would rub her back against it. Initially the dolphin was named Opononi Jack but this was quickly shortened to just Opo.
As Opo became more accustomed to the boats, she began following one of the boats to the wharf across from the Opononi Hotel. And as the weather became warmer, swimmers began entering the water at the beach across from the hotel and Opo could be seen swimming nearby.
Over time Opo began to swim closer and began to interact with the swimmers swimming among them. Soon she began swimming amongst them and playing with them. She especially seemed to like children particularly a 13-year-old girl named Jill Baker. As Jill relates:
I think why the dolphin became so friendly with me was because I was always gentle with her and never rushed at her as so many bathers did. No matter how many in the water playing with her, as soon as I went for a swim she would leave all the others and go off side-by-side with me. . . On several occasions when I was standing in the water with my legs apart she would go between them and pick me up and carry me a short distance before dropping me again. As first she didn’t like the feel of my hands and would dart away, but after a while when she realized that I would not harm her she would come up to me to be rubbed and patted.
As the summer season began, word of Opo spread and visitors began to arrive from all over New Zealand to see the dolphin. The story of the dolphin who would play with children captured the hearts of New Zealanders. Opo didn’t seem to mind and began to make almost daily visits to the beach. She would even let small children ride on her back (something I’m sure that environmentalists would consider a crime today). When children began playing with a ball, Opo appeared in the center of the children’s circle and nosed the ball away moving it through the water until she was a long distance away. Then she stopped and dribbled the ball back and tossed it up on the beach (make sure you watch the video at the end of this post).
Opo was soon given a ball of her own and developed her own repertoire of tricks including allowing the ball to roll down her back before flipping it with her tail. She also played with beer bottles, balancing them on her snout, thrown into the water by drinkers at the hotel across the road, and would help dogs chase sticks thrown into the water.
Her popularity increased. Despite the benefits to the local businesses, this began to cause a strain on the small community and the nearby small roads. At times up to 2,000 people would line the wharf to watch Opo. If the attention became too much, or if too many people attempted to grab at her in the water, Opo would simply flap her tail and swim away.
Some people were less than gentle, and someone took a shot at her claiming he had thought she was a shark. In response, the local community formed what was at that time called the Opononi Gay Dolphin Protection Committee. A custodian was assigned and warnings were put up in an attempt to protect Opo from harm.
The New Zealand government was also solicited to provide legal protection to Opo, similar to that given to Pelorus Jack, another famous dolphin years earlier (see my post on Pelorus Jack). In March 1956 a law made it unlawful to “take or molest any dolphin in Hokianga Harbour.”
During this time the story and popularity of Opo had reached the United States. An NBC film crew from the US had just flown into the area on the very day that Opo had been granted legal protection.
But there was no Opo. A day later Opo’s body was found jammed between several rocks on the shoreline 8 kilometers away. While some speculated that she had been caught between the rocks when the tide receded, this seemed unlikely. Others believed Opo had been killed by fishermen using gelignite (similar to dynamite), while still others suggested she had committed suicide in the absence of having a mate. The true cause of death is unknown.
The community was devastated. A funeral service was conducted and Opo, the friendly, playful dolphin who captured the hearts of a nation, was buried across from the beach where she would play.
These were simpler times—the 1950’s— and all this had happened long before the time when dolphins could readily be seen in theme parks around the world. Indeed, this was happening when most marine mammals were still being actively hunted and killed. Books were written about Opo. A film documentary was made. The song “Opo the Friendly Dolphin” became popular, however I don’t recommend listening to it. It is one of those goofy tunes that tends to stick in your head despite you best efforts.
While travelling up the west coast of Northland on the North Island, we stopped at Opononi. It was a breezy spring day. The community was quiet. Unfortunately the museum with details on Opo’s life was closed (it closes at 2 PM). The wharf can still be seen. And across the street a stone statue of a young boy playing with a dolphin marks Opo’s grave, the dolphin who captured the hearts of a nation.
Excellent video footage of Opo in action – watch this!
Footage, Opo the Dolphin | TVNZ Ondemand
Peart, Raewyn (2013). Dolphins of Aotearoa, Living with New Zealand Dolphins.
Craig Pottton Publishing
Black and white photographs by Eric-Lee Johnson