Hector's dolphin

One of the smallest marine dolphins in the world, Hector’s dolphins grow no more than 1.5 m in length.

Only found in New Zealand’s waters, this distinctive grey dolphin with black and white markings and a round dorsal fin is the most easily recognised species of dolphin in New Zealand.

Hector’s and Māui dolphin are known to Māori by other names, including tutumairekurai, aihe, papakanua, upokohue, tukuperu, tūpoupou, pahu, pōpoto and hopuhopu.

Hector's dolphins. Photo © Dina Engel and Andreas Maecker.
Hector's dolphins are one of the smallest marine dolphins in the world

Facts

Hector’s dolphins are among the world’s smallest marine dolphins. They are found only in the inshore waters of Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Two sub-species of Hector’s dolphins exist: the South Island Hector’s dolphin which is found around the South Island of New Zealand, and the Māui dolphin which is found off the west coast of the North Island.

What do they look like?

Māui dolphin and common dolphin dorsal fins compared.
Māui and Hector's are the only dolphins with a well-rounded black dorsal fin

They are the only dolphins in New Zealand with a rounded black dorsal fin. Their bodies are a distinctive grey, with white and black markings and a short snout.

Adult South Island Hector’s dolphins don’t often exceed 1.5 m in length and weigh between 40 and 60 kg. Males are slightly smaller and lighter than females.

Where are they found?

Hector’s dolphins are found around the coast of the South Island but distribution is patchy.

Populations are concentrated between Haast and Farewell Spit in the west, around Banks Peninsula in the east, and Te Waewae Bay and Porpoise Bay/Te Whanaga Aihe in the south.

Fascinating facts

Hector’s dolphins are known to live to a maximum of about 20 years.

Like other dolphins, Hector’s use echolocation to find their food. They send out high frequency ‘clicks’ that bounce off surrounding objects and fish, giving the dolphins a detailed picture of their surroundings. This sonar is not used all the time, which may be one of the reasons why the dolphins get caught in nets.

Females reach sexual maturity between seven to nine years of age. They produce just one calf every two to three years, making population increase a very slow process.

Hector's dolphin and calf. Photo Al Hutt.
Hector's dolphin and calf

Most females only have four or five calves in a lifetime. Calving usually occurs between November and mid-February, and calves stay with their mothers for up to two years.

Traditionally, Māori watched dolphin movements to predict the weather.

Threats

Dolphins and people have shared our coastal waters and bays for centuries. In recent years, there has been a worldwide increase in awareness of marine mammals and a greater desire to protect them.

Set net fishing poses a major threat to Hector’s and Māui dolphin. Like all marine mammals they need to come to the surface regularly to breathe. If they become tangled in set nets, they will hold their breath until they suffocate.

Because these dolphins occur close inshore, often in bays and harbours, they are at risk of being injured by boats. Newborn dolphins are particularly vulnerable as they swim relatively slowly, close to the surface. Some have been killed by boat propellers when unwary boaties have run them over.

A hector's calf killed by a boat propeller. Photo Al Hutt.
A hector's calf killed by a boat propeller

DOC's work

The Banks Peninsula marine mammal sanctuary in Canterbury was established in 1988 primarily to reduce set-net deaths of Hector’s dolphins in the area.

The Marine Mammals Protection Regulations were introduced in 1992 to control marine mammal tourism activities.

Set-net controls were introduced to Canterbury in 2002 and in west coast North Island in 2003.

DOC, in a joint initiative with the Ministry of Fisheries developed a Draft Threat Management Plan released in 2007. View the Draft plan on the MPI website.

Since then additional fisheries restrictions have been implemented along with four new marine mammal sanctuaries and alterations to the Banks Peninsula marine mammal sanctuary.

Research and scientific studies continue to increase our knowledge about each sub-species’ ecology, conservation status, life history, and threats.

Improved management practices are continually being sought for these dolphins in an attempt to ensure their survival into the future.

Find out more about DOC's work with hector's dophins:

Hector's dolphins. Photo © Dina Engel and Andreas Maecker.
Hector's dolphins are only found in New Zealand’s waters

You can help

When swimming and boating

  • Don’t swim with dolphins except with authorised tourist operators. If swimming near dolphins, avoid wearing suntan lotion or insect repellent as chemicals can irritate dolphin’s eyes.
  • Do not try to touch dolphins.
  • If in a boat use a "no wake" speed within 300 metres of dolphins. Should you need to outdistance them, you may increase your speed gradually to a maximum of 10 knots.
  • Do not feed dolphins. Human food is harmful.
  • Keep their environment clean. Take your rubbish home, and if you find any floating at sea or on the coast, please pick it up.
  • Cooperate with others so all may see dolphins without putting them at risk.

Avoid using set nets

Avoid using set nets, particularly when you cannot remain with your net. If you see dolphins in the area, please remove your nets from the water.

Contact the Ministry for Primary Industries on 0800 4 POACHER (0800 4 76224) if you see set nets being used within closed areas.

Hector's dolphins caught in a recreational set net. DOC USE ONLY.
Hector's dolphins caught in a recreational set net

Report sightings

Sightings of dolphin can be reported to the 0800 DOC HOTline (0800 362 468). These are always of interest and help increase our knowledge of cetacean distribution and movements around New Zealand.

Useful information to record includes:

  • Species/description
  • Location
  • Number of individuals
  • Estimated sizes
  • What they appeared to be doing
  • The direction in which they were headed.

You can use the online form to report a dolphin sighting.

You can also download the marine mammal sighting form (PDF, 416K) or (Word, 4,300K - note this is a large file). These forms include images of marine mammals to help with species identification.

If you catch or harm a dolphin

If you accidentally catch or harm a dolphin you must report it as soon as possible to DOC 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) or the Ministry for Primary Industries (0800 008 333).

If the dolphin is alive you should:

  • Keep the animal wet, but don’t pour water down its blow hole
  • Keep the animal upright
  • Keep the animal shaded from the sun.

Hector's dolphins. Photo © Dina Engel and Andreas Maecker.
Their black and white markings and round dorsal fin make Hector's dolphin's the most easily recognised species of dolphin in New Zealand


Related links

 

Find out more

Learn more

Contacts

Whare Kaupapa Atawhai / Conservation House
Phone:      +64 4 471 0726
Email:   Enquiries@doc.govt.nz
Full office details

Email: marine@doc.govt.nz 

To report whale or dolphin strandings phone the DOC HOTline 24 hour emergency number:

0800 DOCHOT (0800 362 468)

In the North Island, immediately report any Hector’s/Māui dolphin sightings south of Awakino (near the Taranaki – Waikato boundary) and on the East Coast.