A Hector’s dolphin – the world’s smallest and rarest marine dolphin – was spotted in Wellington harbour yesterday after last being seen in 2009.

A Hector’s dolphin – the world’s smallest and rarest marine dolphin – was spotted in Wellington harbour yesterday after last being seen in 2009.

The dolphin was sighted at Mahanga Bay yesterday afternoon by a member of the public, who reported the sighting to DOC today. They said that the dolphin had “spent about five minutes zooming under and around the boat (with the engine in neutral) before disappearing”. A spectator on shore reported seeing two dolphins, but only one animal was seen from the boat.

Hector's dolphin in Wellington Harbour, 2009. Photo copyright: Dianne Proctor.
Hector's dolphin in Wellington Harbour, 2009

The first live record of a Hector’s dolphin in Wellington Harbour was in January 2009. Several sightings of the dolphin were made during the summer and autumn of 2009, with photo and video evidence taken, but there have been no further sightings in the harbour until now. There have been several sightings of possibly the same animal around the Kapiti coast last year.

“It is really exciting to see the return of this very special New Zealand dolphin,”  DOC Kapiti Wellington biodiversity programme manager Peter Simpson said.

“The next step is to try and get a high quality photograph and genetic sample of the dolphin to see if it is the same or a different individual from the one that visited us in 2009,” he said.

“If people see the dolphin, it is helpful if they can take a photograph of the dorsal fin in profile or any other distinctive markings on the body, which can be used to identify the animal.”

Hector‘s dolphins are found only in New Zealand and are recognised as an endangered species, numbering just under 8000. The North Island sub-species of Hector’s dolphin – the Māui dolphin – number just 111 individuals, making it the world’s rarest dolphin.

“Genetic analysis may help us to determine if the animal is indeed a Hector’s dolphin, as was the case in 2009, or if it is the extremely rare Māui dolphin,” said Mr Simpson.

“It will also tell us if it is male or female and which population of Hector’s dolphin it is most closely related to. If we are told about the sighting as soon as possible by members of the public we can get out in a boat and collect this really helpful information.”

If you are lucky enough to spot our unique visitor 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.

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.

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