Saturday, December 27, 2008

The story of Moko the Dolphin - Whale Rescue

Bottlenose Dolphins sometimes shows curiosity towards humans in or near water. Occasionally, Bottlenose Dolphins have rescued injured divers by raising them to the surface. This is similar to behaviour they show towards injured members of their own species. In November 2004, a more dramatic report of dolphin intervention came from New Zealand. Four lifeguards, swimming 100 m (328 ft) off the coast near Whangarei, were approached by a shark (reportedly a Great White Shark). A group of Bottlenose Dolphins, most likely sensing danger to the swimmers, herded them together and tightly surrounded them for forty minutes, preventing an attack from the shark, as they returned to shore.

Dolphins have also been documented exhibiting altruistic behaviour toward other sea creatures. On Mahia Beach, New Zealand on March 10, 2008 two Pygmy Sperm Whales — a female and calf — became stranded on the beach. Rescuers, including Department of Conservation officer Malcolm Smith, attempted to refloat the whales, however their efforts failed four times. Shortly before the whales were to be euthanized a playful Bottlenose Dolphin known to local residents as Moko arrived and, after seemingly communicating with the whales, led them 200 meters along a sandbar to the open sea.

Bottlenose Dolphin responding to human hand gestures

  • Witnesses say a bottlenose dolphin helped two stranded whales to safety
  • The two pygmy sperm whales were stranded on a sandbar at Mahia Beach, NZ
  • Rescuers watched as the dolphin guided the mother and calf to open sea

Moko the dolphin had already won over humans at Mahia Beach, where she plays with swimmers in the New Zealand surf and pushes kayaks along.

'Moko', a female dolphin that has been visiting the coastline around the Mahia Peninsula since March 2007, has attracted attention from locals and visitors who have been delighted by close encounters with the animal.

Moko the Mahia dolphin. Photo: M Smith.
Moko the Mahia dolphin

Dolphins are wild animals

For people lucky enough to get close to dolphins, it is easy to be fooled by their sleek beauty and intelligence into thinking of them as pets rather than wild animals.

Approaching these marine mammals as if they are domesticated animals is a mistake that holds dangers for people and for dolphins. Following a few commonsense rules will result in a healthy environment for the dolphins and rewarding experiences for people who enjoy their company.

How can you help Moko?


Ensure that children are well supervised when in the water near Moko.


  • try to handle Moko or any other dolphin.
  • surround the dolphin – always allow it to have an escape route where it can safely move to deeper water.
  • attempt to ride or be towed by a dolphin.

If you are approached by Moko when swimming, remain calm and let the dolphin make contact with you if it wishes to. Do not attempt to control Moko by chasing or pulling on her and when she chooses to leave, do not attempt to stop her.


The other major threat to dolphins that interact with people is boat strike. The Marine Mammal Protection Regulations provide common sense rules for boaties to minimise the danger to dolphins.

General rules to follow when boating near dolphins:

  • Operate your boat slowly and quietly.
  • Manoeuvre your boat sensitively near dolphins. Do not obstruct their path, cut through a group or separate mothers from calves.
  • Avoid sudden noises that could startle the animals.
  • Keep the ocean clean by carefully disposing of any rubbish. Plastic waste can be particularly hazardous when discarded near waterways or beaches.

Keeping you and Moko safe

Dolphins have delicate skin that can be easily damaged when people touch them. They may carry diseases that can be transferred to humans and likewise, people with infections may cause dolphins to become unwell.

Dolphins are large, strong and agile and can injure people who get too close. World-wide, there has been one case recorded of a dolphin attacking and killing a person, something that happened after long and repeated provocation.

Due to their size and strength, 'playful' dolphins that choose to approach humans have been known to cause painful injuries to people. Injuries have included cracked ribs, internal damage and painful bruises. No matter how strong or speedy humans may be on land, compared with dolphins we are all slow and weak when in water, and have been described as having the power and agility of 'a slug on a carpet'. Avoiding a large fast marine mammal can be an impossible task.

Dolphins can also discriminate between 'favoured' and other humans and may physically chastise people they don’t like or try to stop 'playmates' from leaving the water. Some solo dolphins have been known to poke humans with their beaks and occasionally hold people under water for short periods. If dolphins become frightened or frustrated, they may injure people who crowd in around them by biting, butting or just trying to swim to open water.

If a dolphin interacts with you in a way that you don’t like, remain calm and swim to shore as soon as you are able. If the dolphin tries to block you or push you out to sea, persist, push it away, swim round it or call someone else over to distract it.

Do not give toys to a dolphin

Playing with items may result in injury to the dolphin at a later date. If it associates items such as crayfish floats with play, it may approach all floats as toys and can then become entangled in ropes or set nets. Entanglement in fishing gear is one of the biggest threats faced by dolphins.

Dolphins can also seem aggressive when they attempt to take items that they think are toys, such as diving masks, cameras, boogie boards or fins. In any battle for possession between dolphins and humans, it is most likely that people will lose their gear. For the dolphin, there are dangers if it approaches other objects in the ocean as if they are toys, with potential for entanglement, choking and other major injuries caused by 'playing' with rubbish.

Avoid wearing suntan lotion

Chemicals in the water can irritate the dolphins’ eyes.

Dolphin facts

Moko the Mahia dolphin is a female bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates).

Bottlenose dolphins earn their name from the shape of their short, stubby beak. Their lower jaw also projects beyond the upper, giving them the appearance of wearing a permanent grin.

They are often seen along the East Coast, usually in groups of up to 30 animals.

Males are larger than females and can be as long as 4 metres and weigh up to 300 kg.

They have little or no sense of smell, but make up for it with a sharp sense of hearing. They have excellent vision in and out of the water.

The brain of a bottlenose dolphin is larger than a human brain, but the area concerned with intelligence is smaller. Their skin is smooth and feels sort of like an inner tube.

Bottlenose dolphins swim at speeds of about 5-11 kilometres, using their flippers to steer, and with the help of their flukes, to stop.

All dolphins have to be conscious to breathe air but they also need to sleep. Bottlenoses let one half of their brain sleep at a time so they can rest without drowning and can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes.

Bottlenose dolphins communicate in several different ways. They squeak and whistle and use body language – leaping as high as 5 metres in the air, snapping their jaws, slapping their tails on the surface of the water and even butting heads. They have great flexibility because they have fewer fused vertebrae in their necks than other dolphins.

Females give birth every 2 to 3 years, normally 1 calf after a pregnancy of 1 year. The calves are usually born tail first so they don’t drown. When first born, its mother will whistle to it over and over again until it can repeat her whistle. The calf can then always find its mother.

Bottlenoses will eat almost any kind of fish. Their diets also include squid and small crustaceans such as shrimp. They swallow their food whole and catch fish with 18-26 pairs of sharp cone-shaped teeth on each side of their jaws.

Its important to remember that bottlenose dolphins can be unpredictable and aggressive - to each other and to other animals, including humans. As wild animals please give them the respect they deserve.

NZ dolphin rescues beached whales
Moko the dolphin
Moko is well known locally for playing with swimmers in the bay

A dolphin has come to the rescue of two whales which had become stranded on a beach in New Zealand.

Conservation officer Malcolm Smith told the BBC that he and a group of other people had tried in vain for an hour and a half to get the whales to sea.

The pygmy sperm whales had repeatedly beached, and both they and the humans were tired and set to give up, he said.

But then the dolphin appeared, communicated with the whales, and led them to safety.

The bottlenose dolphin, called Moko by local residents, is well known for playing with swimmers off Mahia beach on the east coast of the North Island.

Malcolm Smith
Mr Smith said he gave the dolphin a pat to say thank you
Mr Smith said that just when his team was flagging, the dolphin showed up and made straight for them.

"I don't speak whale and I don't speak dolphin," Mr Smith told the BBC, "but there was obviously something that went on because the two whales changed their attitude from being quite distressed to following the dolphin quite willingly and directly along the beach and straight out to sea."

He added: "The dolphin did what we had failed to do. It was all over in a matter of minutes."

Back at play

Mr Smith said he felt fortunate to have witnessed the extraordinary event, and was delighted for the whales, as in the past he has had to put down animals which have become beached.

He said that the whales have not been seen since, but that the dolphin had returned to its usual practice of playing with swimmers in the bay.

"I shouldn't do this I know, we are meant to remain scientific," Mr Smith said, "but I actually went into the water with the dolphin and gave it a pat afterwards because she really did save the day."

How Moko the dolphin gave humans a masterclass in saving stranded whales

Moko the dolphin had already won over humans at Mahia Beach, where she plays with swimmers in the New Zealand surf and pushes kayaks along with her snout.

Now the friendly bottle-nosed has shown her empathy for other species, by saving two whales from almost certain death after they became stranded.

Human attempts to guide the two pygmy sperm whales through a narrow escape route from the beach had consistently failed, and all seemed lost until the dolphin intervened.

Moko, a regular visitor to Mahia Beach on the east side of North Island, appeared to communicate with the whales before guiding them to open water.

Malcolm Smith, a field worker for the New Zealand Department of Conservation, said that he had almost given up and was contemplating killing the whales to prevent further distress, until Moko arrived.

“It was amazing,” he said. “It was like she grabbed them by the flipper and led them to safety. We worked for over an hour to try to get them back out to sea . . . but they kept getting disorientated and stranding again.”

The whales — a three metres (10ft) long female and her 1.5-metre male calf — had been unable to negotiate a sand bar that was blocking their way to deeper water.

Mr Smith was alerted to the whales’ plight early on Monday morning by a neighbour. “Over the next hour and a half I pushed them back out to sea two or three times and they were very reluctant to move offshore,” he said.

“I was reaching the stage where I was thinking, it’s about time to give up, I’ve done as much as I can. The whales were getting tired and I was getting cold when Moko turned up. She just came straight for us and escorted the two whales along the beach and out though the channel.”

He heard Moko and the whales making noises before they departed, he said. “The whales were on the surface of the water quite distressed. They had arched their backs and were calling to one another, but as soon as the dolphin turned up they submerged into the water and followed her.”

Moko led the whales 200m along the beach and once they reached the end of the sand bar, Moko turned a right angle through a narrow channel and led the whales to safety.

Rescued whales often return to the site of their stranding, but Moko’s actions appear to have had long-term success. “She obviously gave them enough guidance to leave the area because we haven’t seen them since,” Mr Smith said.

“What the communication was I do not know, and I was not aware dolphins could communicate with pygmy sperm whales.”

Mark Simmonds, director of science at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, said that bottle-nosed dolphins are renowned for their ability to empathise with humans and other animals. “The whole notion that a bottle-nose dolphin would have shown the whales the way out is completely possible,” he said.

“Dolphins have got the ability to plan, to think ahead, to persuade others to take part. They almost certainly do not have a common language with pygmy sperm whales, but they would understand that the whales would have been at risk of stranding. The first thing a dolphin does when it has a calf is to push it to the surface so it can breathe.”

Dolphins are known to swim in mixed groups with some species of whale to protect themselves from predators, so it may not have been unusual for the animals to associate with one another, he said. He is aware of one instance of a bottle-nosed dolphin — nicknamed Dave by locals in Folkestone, Kent, where the female creature is a regular sighting — playing with a seal.

Moko has become famous for her antics at Mahia, which include playing in the surf with swimmers, approaching boats to be patted and pushing kayaks through the water with her snout. Once she had assisted the whales she immediately returned to the beach to play with local residents.

Such close interaction with humans is rare among dolphins but not unknown. Mr Smith said: “She’s become isolated from her pod obviously for one reason or another, but made Mahia home just at the moment.”

Up to 30 whales become stranded on Mahia Beach every year, most of which have to be put down.

“I don’t know if next time we have a whale stranding we can get her to come in again. She certainly saved the day for us and the whales this time.”

The flip side

Todd Endris, a Californian surfer, was saved by a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins last year after an 18ft great white shark attacked him in Monterey Bay. The 24-year-old was hurled from his board and bitten in the chest and stomach. As the shark began swallowing his leg the dolphins slapped their tails and formed a protective ring around the surfer, allowing him to paddle to shore

The US Navy’s marine mammal programme investigates the military uses of dolphins — officially concentrating on their ability to detect undersea mines. The Soviet Union was believed to train killer dolphins to attack enemy frogmen and launch suicide-bomb attacks against warships. In 2000, after funding for the Russian programme was cut, many of the dolphins were reportedly sold to Iran

Researchers at Southern Cross University in Australia studying dolphin communication recorded almost 200 distinct sounds used during feeding, migration and socialising. They were so “complex and contextual” that the researcher suggested they amounted to a basic language

Pliny the Younger, a Roman official and writer, tells the tale of a boy who rode on the back of a dolphin, to the delight of his village. The boy and dolphin became a sensation and “all the magistrates round flocked hither to view this sight”. But soon, Pliny says, “the quiet and retirement of the place was utterly destroyed” and the decision was taken to kill the dolphin

Amazonian dolphins impress potential mates by carrying clumps of weed on their fins or sticks in their mouths. The behaviour, distinct from that of other dolphins, supports the idea of “dolphin culture” — behaviour that is learnt from peers rather than instinctive

Bookmark and Share
posted by u2r2h at Saturday, December 27, 2008


Post a Comment

<< Home