One of the world's smallest and rarest dolphins has paid a surprise visit to Wellington Harbour, delighting onlookers and exciting DOC marine mammal experts.

Date:  30 January 2009

One of the world’s smallest and rarest dolphins has paid a surprise visit to Wellington Harbour, delighting onlookers and exciting Department of Conservation marine mammal experts.

One, possibly two, Hector’s dolphins have been spotted in the past week, with photos taken by members of the public confirming this unusual find.

“It’s almost like having a kakapo turning up in your back yard” said Peter Simpson, DOC Poneke biodiversity programme manager.

“Hector’s dolphins are usually only seen in waters around the South Island and are not a common sight, being nationally endangered with just over 7000 in existence. We don’t know why they have decided to come into the harbour, or where they have come from.”

A Hector's dolphin in Wellington Harbour. Photo: Antony McDonald.
A Hector's dolphin in Wellington

This is the first record of a live Hector’s dolphin in Wellington harbour. A dead one washed up on Petone beach in 1978.

DOC researchers hope to determine if the dolphins are members of the even rarer sub-species of Hector’s dolphin – the Māui dolphin, of which there are only around 110 living along the North Island’s west coast, making it the world’s rarest dolphin.

“Dolphins have distinct markings on their body and fins that identify particular individuals,” said DOC marine mammal expert Nadine Bott.

“Photos can be compared against national databases to see if there is a match– similar to mug-shot identification in humans!.”

If you are lucky enough to spot our unique visitors it is important to follow the simple rules that govern behaviour around marine mammals.

On shore

  • Do not disturb, harass or make loud noises near marine mammals.
  • Do not feed or throw any rubbish near them.
  • Avoid sudden or repeated changes in speed or direction of any vessel or aircraft near a marine mammal.
  • There should be no more than three vessels and/or aircraft within 300 metres of any marine mammal.

At sea

  • Ensure that you travel no faster than idle or ‘no wake’ speed within 300 metres of any marine mammal.
  • Approach whales and dolphins from behind and to the side.
  • Do not circle them, obstruct their path or cut through any group.
  • Idle slowly away. Speed may be gradually increased to out-distance dolphins and should not exceed 10 knots within 300 metres of any dolphin.

In the air

  • Aircraft should maintain a horizontal distance of greater than 150 metres when flying near any marine mammal.
  • Avoid flying or imposing a shadow directly over a marine mammal either at sea or on shore.

Take care with set nets

  • Stay with your net at all times.
  • Don’t net if dolphins, seals or diving birds are nearby.
  • REMEMBER set nets catch more than fish.

A guide for responsible set netting can be obtained from your local Ministry of Fisheries office, or visit

All seals, dolphins, whales and porpoises are fully protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978. Offences carry penalties of up to six months imprisonment or fines up to $250,000 and further fines of up to $10,000 for every marine mammal in respect of which the offence is committed.

The rules are outlined in a brochure entitled Sharing our coasts with marine mammals

Refer to the Marine Mammals Protection Regulations 1992 for a complete list of conditions prescribing behaviour around marine mammals. Visit:

What to do if you see a Hector’s or Māui dolphin in the North Island

Report sightings of Hector’s or Māui dolphin to DOC, preferably as soon as possible, by calling the 0800 DOCHOT line (0800 36 24 68).

DOC needs to know the date, time and location of the sighting, the number of dolphins, whether there were any calves, and any other observations regarding their behaviour. If possible, take a photograph (from a camera or mobile phone) of the dolphins with a land feature in the background and a record of the GPS position of the sighting. ENDS

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Kapiti Wellington Office
Phone:   +64 4 470 8412
Address:   13b Wall Place
Porirua 5022
Postal Address:   PO Box 5086
Wellington 6140

To report sightings of Hector's or Māui dolphin call the 0800 DOCHOT line (0800 36 24 68)

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