Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa Go to Te Ao Hou homepage
No. 23 (July 1958)
– 22 –

OPO THE GAY DOLPHIN

Ehare te toka i Akiha he toka whitinga ra tena, ko te toka o Mapuna, ko te ripo akake e kitea.

A Maori proverb of the Hokianga Harbour says:

“The Rock of Akiha is of no account as the sun can shine on it, but the rock of Mapuna is different; all you can see is its swirl”.

Why did the dolphin come to live in the Hokianga River in the year 1955? She was seen following rowing boats during February of that year. On Easter Saturday in March 1955 a memorial for Kupe was unveiled, after whom this river was named the Hokianga or Return of Kupe. This memorial is at Pakanae and is of virgin rock.

Mr Hohepa Heperi, a Maori elder who was brought up in the Hokianga said to us: “Opo is the fish of peace, a legacy from Kupe”.

She died on some rocks above Koutu Point, about three miles up-river from Opononi. The Maori name for these rocks is Te Kauere o Kupe.

It was towards the end of March 1956 that Opo died. These coincidences are certainly strange.

In writing about Opo I wish to apologise for not having any photos of her. When I went to collect my photographs, they had been developed, but lost. This happened after her death. I had no intention at the time of writing about Opo so I did not keep dates and other data. When Te Ao Hou asked for articles for their readers I made up my mind to write of my experiences and observations during her short but memorable life.

I was in the store at Opononi when Dr Turbott from the Auckland Museum arrived. During the discussion on Opo the fact that she was a female dolphin was disclosed. Previous to her death she was called Opo Jack. No one asked Dr Turbott what Opo's diet was and to this day I don't know. She was about 8ft. 6in. long and weighed about 800 lbs.

HOW I FIRST SAW OPO

Although I had heard that there was a dolphin in the Hokianga Harbour I did not make her acquaintance until June of 1955. I was returning from Rangi Point School about 6.30 p.m. and the sea was rather choppy. Suddenly there was a big splash and a boiling swirl. A large fish was streaking for my boat just under the surface. I really thought it was going to hit my boat, when about 10 yards away, it dived and surfaced on the other side. It played round and round the boat. Such was the way I first met Opo. I was afraid she would be hit by my outboard, so I went in-shore as close as I could. When I was in about 4 feet of water I looked back. She was about three feet out of the water, standing literally on her tail and looking at me from a distance of about fifty yards away. She sank out of sight and that was the last I saw of her that afternoon.

In August of the same year, two other chaps and I went to Rangi Point to gather pipis. We had not gone far when we were joined by Opo. By this time, whenever we went out fishing we were always on the look-out for her and rarely were we disappointed. Opo really gave a charming display that day. She played round and round our boat and then swam just under the keel. When she did this you could feel the boat being lifted in the swell she made as she swam under the boat.

One of the chaps sat right in the bow and kept putting his hand in the sea trying to touch Opo. At last he did. As far as I know he was the first person to touch Opo with his hand. While picking pipis three boats passed going to Opononi but she stayed just out from our boat cruising round. Then she followed us all the way back to Opononi.

A TOURIST ATTRACTION

By the beginning of the warmer weather Opo had begun to be a drawcard. One of my daughters who had to work at weekends as the proprietor of the tearooms was unable to cope with the crowds.

By the time the Xmas holidays had begun Opo had really hit the headlines. The tearooms were doing a roaring trade and two other helpers had to be employed. We asked our daughter how many people were there each day and she said round about fifteen hundred to two thousand. We were a bit sceptical so we went to Opononi one Sunday afternoon, just out of idle curiosity.

– 23 –

If I had not seen it for myself I would never have believed it. I have heard of traffic jams and crowded beaches but to see them at Opononi was a wonderful experience. This did not happen once or twice but every Saturday and Sunday. Cars, buses, trucks, vans and motor-bikes were seen parked on either side of the road for half a mile or more on each side of Opononi, with barely room to drive along the centre of the road. If a vehicle was held up or was to meet one coming the opposite way a traffic jam was the immediate result. Traffic was so congested at times that officers had to be brought in to direct it. Two officers were on duty most Sundays and they did a very good job in untangling traffic. Two Sundays before Opo died a special parking place was made available which was a very real boon.

These are my own reflections after her demise. I had never seen her with her mouth open. When she died I had a look at her mouth and I was surprised at her teeth. She had conical teeth about one and a half inches long, about one inch apart in both jaws. If she had a notion to be savage she would have been able to rip a person to pieces with one bite.

With the record traffic on the roads I never heard of a single motoring accident in coming to or returning to Opononi. As for swimmers there were easily over a hundred young and old in the water but there was not a single drowning fatality.

With all these people coming during the weekends, Saturdays in particular when up to 1500 people were jammed on the beach, there was no case of drunkenness, fights or arguments. Everybody was in the gayest of holiday moods.

GAMES WITH OPO

As for herself she was really and truly a children's playmate. Although she played with grownups she was really at her charming best with a crowd of children swimming and wading. I have seen her swimming amongst children almost begging to be petted. She had an uncanny knack of finding out those who were gentle among the young admirers, and keeping away from the rougher elements. If they were all gentle then she would give of her best. When playing with a rubber ball no one could help but be thrilled by her antics with it. She would push the ball along the water and then flip it in the air, catch it on her nose then toss it in the air again, or she would try and sink the ball by pressing it under her body or tail. She must have got it fairly deep at times as the ball bounced nearly four feet up in the air when it escaped from under her. Then she would toss it in the air and hit it with her tail. To watch her was one of the most fascinating sights imaginable.

Then there was her game of playing with empty beer bottles. Toss her a beer bottle, empty or full, and she would treat it with disdain. She had to find her own bottle from the bottom of the sea. How she balanced it on her nose I cannot imagine but she really did and she would toss it quite a distance up in the air.

I have tried to make her play with a glass ball, a float from a seine net, but she never seems to use it which makes me think she could not see anything clear like glass. It had to be coloured before she would take notice. She even tried to toss a piece of brown paper which I threw overboard.

THE LURE OF THE MOTOR

Opo had a real weakness for the sound of an outboard motor. Many times I have gone to watch the people playing on the beach with Opo. I would be about a quarter of a mile away with the motor idling when I would hear “Oh” from her admirers on the beach. Next thing I would see Opo coming towards me. Many times I have rowed away from Opononi, started my motor only to find Opo had left her admirers and was following my boat, but I always returned her to

– 24 –

the beach and then by rowing a long way off before starting my motor I could leave her to her friends. I have seen her following a boat which had its motor going full speed, yet she could overtake it without the least effort. Many times when she overtook a boat she would leap clean out of the water. She would hit the water and, still at top speed, keep on swimming round and round the boat.

One of the funniest sights I have seen was the crowd of amateur and press photographers trying to take a snap of Opo from a boat. Opo would surface on one side of the boat. By the time the cameras were focussed on the spot Opo had dived out of sight. They would wait for her to appear in the same place. Instead, she would appear in a totally different place. All hands would train their cameras on her but before a snap could be taken she would disappear again. This could go on for a quarter of an hour or more. When Opo seemed to tire of her teasing ways then she would give a good pose for a perfect snap.

People came to Opononi from many parts of the country, arriving in the morning and waiting for Opo to appear. She was nearly always handy cruising around nearby. If an outboard boat was conveniently near, the owner was only too willing to go and get her. Once she heard the motor she followed just like a dog, playing or cruising round the boat. As soon as she arrived people swarmed to the wharf and the beach, taking snaps, marvelling or just enjoying themselves watching her. In fact I have felt sorry for her as she never seemed to have the time to feed during the day. If she had an urge to wander, an outboard had only to be started and she would return to her admirers again.

Some people got so excited when they saw Opo that they went into the water fully clothed just to touch her. One chap was heard to say. “I didn't believe what I'd heard. Now I've seen Opo I still don't believe what I've seen!” Such was her popularity that I have seen the same people come weekend after weekend with their families to enjoy and marvel.

WHY DID SHE DIE?

The news of her death came as a stunning shock to everyone. The uppermost feeling was sorrow and sadness and a deep sense of loss as of a loved member of a family.

She lies buried by the Opononi Memorial Hall near the beach which she had made so popular and famous. Telegrams and letters from all over New Zealand came expressing their sorrow over her death and conveying their heartfelt sympathy to the people of Opononi, but to the children in particular. Such was the contents of a telegram received from Sir Willoughby Norrie, Governor General of New Zealand at that time.

Why and how did she die? She was found stranded between two rocks on a point past Koutu, about three miles up-river from Opononi.

There are two schools of thought concerning the cause of her death. Foul play which was possible but improbable. She was skinned on one side of her body, but that could be caused by dashing against the rocks when she was in her death throes. She may also have stranded through the tide receding before she knew she could not get out. This is quite possible.

My own humble opinion, for what it is worth, is that she committed suicide. I base my conjecture on two points. Opo was a female dolphin and there was no male to keep her company. A dolphin is a mammal and her young are suckled and get their milk from a shallow dent under her flippers where they join her body.

As she was a lone dolphin the urge to reproduce like any other animal could not be satisfied. This hankering for young to mother is one reason why she got so friendly with humans, especially children, also why she liked being stroked by an oar or a mop. Invariably when being stroked she would turn over on her back to be stroked on her stomach. But her greatest urge was for reproduction of her own kind. When this urge was not satisfied she committed suicide by deliberately getting herself stranded.

It was weeks after her death before I could venture to go out fishing. When I did I could not help but look around expecting Opo to come cavorting to meet my boat, but all in vain.

I have tried to express my thoughts and things which I have seen when Opo was alive. She was one of the most wonderful and short-lived friends of everyone. To those who did not have the privilege of seeing her I wish to say this: you have missed seeing something so wonderful that my story is a very poor substitute for the real and short-lived, but so world-famous. Opo, the Gay Dolphin.