TALES I: Opo the Friendly Dolphin

In June 1955, three bottlenose dolphins were observed by a local fisherman on the shores of Opononi. Spotting the dolphins by their dorsal fin, he believed the sea creatures to be sharks, so he pulled out his rifle and shot at them. 

Two of the three dolphins were never seen again, believed to have died by the gunfire but one remained. It is believed that of the three dolphins in the pod, the two that died were the mother and sibling of the now only remaining bottlenose. The surviving dolphin was a friendly sort, and became a regular visitor to the bay, warming the hearts of all who met him.

As months passed, the dolphin stuck around the harbour. At first the bottlenose was, understandably, a little hesitant to get too close to the locals, in particular the fisherman. But slowly, the townsfolk won the trust of the bottlenose and he gradually ventured closer and closer to shore.

Locals became enamored with the ocean mammal, and they decided to name the dolphin, ‘Opononi Jack’, in reference to another famous NZ dolphin ‘Pelorus Jack’, but, as time went on, the gay dolphin at Opononi became more widely refered to as ‘Opo the friendly dolphin’.

Visit www.truecrimenz.com for more information on this case including sources and credits.

Hosted by Jessica Rust

Written and edited by Sirius Rust

Music sourced from:

Day of Chaos by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3620-day-of-chaos
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

With the Sea by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/4638-with-the-sea
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Sunset at Glengorm by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/4437-sunset-at-glengorm
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Almost Bliss by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/5032-almost-bliss
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Clear Waters by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3516-clear-waters
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Pippin the Hunchback by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/4219-pippin-the-hunchback
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

The podcast version is the intended way to consume this story but we make a transcript available for those that would rather read instead. This can be found below.

TALES I: Opo the Friendly Dolphin

——-

DISCLAIMER:

This episode is the first in our TALES series. This series is more stories (or tales) that formed New Zealand’s history. While there are elements of true crime in many of the stories we will cover, in general, this series is more true crime adjacent than anything. And is even intended to be accessible to a younger audience or even listened to as a family.

Thank you, and without any further ado on with the episode.

——-

INTRODUCTION

He’s Opo the friendly dolphin,
He’s friendly as can be,
If you should want to learn to swim,
You couldn’t do better than learn from him,
He’ll very soon get you into trim,
And he’s giving instruction free,
Down at good old Opononi by the sea.

Opo the Friendly Dolphin, a song by Crombie Murdoch

ORIGINS

In 1855, a European settler John Webster, who had arrived in New Zealand 14 years earlier, purchased 700 acres of land on the southern shore of the Hokianga Harbour in the Northland region. The land was known by Maori as Opononi, which translates in English to “place of [a] crooked fishing post”. At the location, he established a homestead and a large pastoral farm, along with a wharf and a trading store. 

By the mid 20th century, Opononi had grown into a small town, mostly a retirement, fishing and holiday town, of approximately 250 residents. The tiny village consisted of a post office, a hotel, a campground and a store. However, due to an unlikely source, Opononi would go on to fame, national and international, that no one could have envisioned.

In June 1955, three bottlenose dolphins were observed by a local fisherman on the shores of Opononi. Spotting the dolphins by their dorsal fin, he believed the sea creatures to be sharks, so he pulled out his rifle and shot at them. 

Two of the three dolphins were never seen again, believed to have died by the gunfire but one remained. It is believed that of the three dolphins in the pod, the two that died were the mother and sibling of the now only remaining bottlenose. The surviving dolphin was a friendly sort, and became a regular visitor to the bay, warming the hearts of all who met him.

As months passed, the dolphin stuck around the harbour. At first the bottlenose was, understandably, a little hesitant to get too close to the locals, in particular the fisherman. But slowly, the townsfolk won the trust of the bottlenose and he gradually ventured closer and closer to shore.

Locals became enamored with the ocean mammal, and they decided to name the dolphin, ‘Opononi Jack’, in reference to another famous NZ dolphin ‘Pelorus Jack’, but, as time went on, the gay dolphin at Opononi became more widely refered to as ‘Opo the friendly dolphin’.

FIRST HUMAN INTERACTIONS

In the months after June 1955, Opo himself became a resident in the small town. Opo’s first interactions with people came when fishermen used one of their oars to rub his back, Opo seemed to enjoy it. It wasn’t until August 1955 when the first person touched Opo with their bare hands. A local farmer, Piwai Toi was out collecting pipi (shellfish) with two friends in the Hokianga Harbour when a curious Opo joined them. Opo swam under the boat and around it, playing. One of the men put their hand in the water and Opo swam up to him, allowing the man to touch him.

As winter ended, and spring emerged, locals began entering the water for a ‘dip’ on the hotter days. At first Opo was wary of the swimmers but soon Opo began growing more confident. 

Opo seemed to particularly love children, he was still a little wary of adults, but that subsided over time. Eventually the locals taught Opo tricks, and the clever marine creature was balancing beach balls, and even beer bottles on his nose. Opo also would also, famously, scoop small children up and take them for brief rides. 

In December 1955, a photographer began to capture the amazing creature’s antics. Eric Lee-Johnson photographed Opo with his human friends and sent the images to the Auckland Star and the NZ Herald newspapers. The images were printed, alongside eye witness descriptions of the encounters.

SUMMER

The secret of Opo was out and as the summer heat began beating down on Aotearoa, hordes of New Zealanders began flocking to Opononi to meet the impressive dolphin. 1,000s of curious folk packed up the car and enveloped the tiny town, hotels filled up quickly, as did the campground — long lines were abundant, traffic slowed to a crawl, beer was being shipped in by the truckload, the local tearoom staff worked to exhaustion serving sandwiches and ice cream. The town’s infrastructure was stretched to its limit, as the town was accustomed to catering for around 250 people, now it was regaling up to 2,000 folk a day.

Seemingly, visitors didn’t mind these moderate inconveniences though, Opo was that impressive. Thousands stood on the beach, peering out at the marine creature, watching him perform tricks with his beach ball. Remarkably clever, Opo began teaching himself new tricks to entertain the crowds, including tossing the ball in the air and catching it on his back, and turning over, rolling the ball along his belly and flipping it upward with his tail.

Naturally, many of the big crowds of visiting folk wanted to get their hands on the extraordinary Opo, sometimes too aggressively, there were instances of swimmers jabbing Opo with oars, general manhandling and fights that broke out over his attention. During these times, Opo would swim away out of reach and slap his tail in the water, seemingly out of annoyance. 

Opononi local, Jill Baker, who was 13-years-old at the time, told Raewyn Peart later for the book Dolphins in Aotearoa, that she had developed a special bond and friendship with the affable sea mammal, “I think why the dolphin became so friendly with me was because I was always gentle with her and never rushed at her as so many bathers did. No matter how many went in the water playing with her, as soon as I went in for a swim she would leave all the others and go off side-by-side with me…”

As the summer months unfolded, natives of Opononi, seeing themselves as Opo’s custodians, became concerned for his safety as a small number of adverse incidents had occurred.

One incident was an accident. Opo swam too close to a fishing boat and was cut by the propeller, the fishermen were worried they had killed the famous dolphin but the next day Opo showed up with only a minor wound.

In another incident, a man and his friends competed to see who could lift Opo over their heads the highest. While Opo was seemingly unharmed, it raised concern over the issue of the long term safety of the illustrious bottlenose.

COMMITTEE

Sometime in early 1956 a committee was formed to protect Opo, the organisation was dubbed the Opononi Gay Dolphin Protection Committee (gay in this case meaning ‘showing a merry, lively mood’). The committee put up signs around the beaches saying “Welcome to Opononi — but don’t try to shoot our Gay Dolphin… He is not a shark — just a friendly fish — either a porpoise or a dolphin and a close friend of all residents and visitors”.

The committee lobbied to the government to create legislation to protect Opo from harm. The government agreed to do so and began drafting legislation, at the time an extraordinary gesture, as the act of killing marine mammals was still legal in NZ under the Whaling Industry Act of 1935, with some takeaways (or ‘chippies’) even serving up whale steaks.

The regulations came into effect on the 8th of March 1956 under the The Fisheries (Dolphin Protection) Regulations of 1956 which reads in part, “During the period of five years from the commencement of these regulations it shall not be lawful for any person to take or molest any dolphin in the Hokianga Harbour, being all that area of tidal land and tidal water inside the seaward arc of a circle having a radius of two nautical miles from the signal station on the South Head at the entrance to the said harbour… Any person committing a breach of these regulations shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £50 (equivalent to approx. $1,300 dollars in 2021)”.

9 MARCH 1956

9th of March 1956. The day after the regulations had come into effect. The locals of Opononi congregated at the beachfront to greet Opo, however, he never came, in fact, he wasn’t seen yesterday either. Not a big deal, Opo had been known to wander the ocean for days at a time when the crowds became too much. We’ll see him tomorrow, they thought.

However, later that evening the lifeless body of a bottlenose dolphin was found 8km away in Koutu Point, the dolphin was found jammed in between two large rocks. The body was retrieved and the community’s worst fears were realised, Opo had passed away. His skin was scraped off one side, with a deep cut found between his mouth and dorsal fin.

The community of Opononi was horrified and saddened by the tragic loss of Opo, and wanted to know how this happened. Unfortunately, the question of how Opo the friendly dolphin died has never been truly answered. However, theories are abundant, it is widely believed that Opo was either killed by becoming stranded while fishing, or was killed by fishermen while they were fishing with gelignite (an explosive material). Whether the latter was intentional or not is also debated. There is a belief that a portion of Opononi fishermen were irate with Opo as he would follow their boats, eating and scaring off the fish.

If this is true, nobody ever confessed to playing a role in Opo’s death, at the time, or in the subsequent years. It would seem, the honest answers to our lingering questions of Opo’s demise, will never be sincerely answered. And we can only pray that whatever happened, Opo didn’t suffer.

LEGACY

Opo’s body was retrieved, and transported back to Opononi for burial. A large crowd lined the beach to get one last look at their marine friend. Wreaths and other tributes lined the beach that Opo had made home for 10 months. NZ mourned their fallen friend.

As Opo’s lifeless body awaited its final resting spot, a discovery was made, the gentle dolphin ‘Opononi Jack’, presumed to be male, was actually female. Moreover, Opo’s death allowed marine biologists to determine her age; she was only two years old

Tragically, Opo only lived 3% of her possible total lifespan, as bottlenose dolphins, in particular females, have been known to live up to 60 years. Opo’s young age adds further credibility to the theory that one of the dolphins shot dead when Opo was first seen was her mother, as bottlenose calves live with their mothers for 3 to 6 years.

Opo the friendly dolphin was buried next to the South Hokianga War Memorial Hall on State Highway 12. She was buried at a public ceremony with full Maori honours, and the flag at the Opononi wharf flew at half mast to pay respects to young Opo.

A headstone was erected at the spot of her burial to remember the magnificent marine creature that brought so much joy to all those she encountered, the headstone reads:

“Here lies Opo the friendly dolphin 1955 1956.”

Fig 1. Opo the Dolphin statue by Russell Clark

In 1960, so the town, and greater NZ, would never forget gentle Opo, a stone statue was erected by sculptor Russell Clark in Opononi to further honor the elegant mammal. The statue is of a small child stradling Opo, as he is taken for a ride. The statue is accompanied by a plaque that reads:

“Opo the dolphin, who came in from the open sea and lived along this shore, becoming so tame that children could ride upon her back.”

CONCLUSION

There never was such a dolphin,
In the whole of the Tasman Sea,
Across the waves [s]he likes to shoot,
You never saw a fish that looked so cute,
And [s]he lives at Opononi by the sea…

Opo the Friendly Dolphin, a song by Crombie Murdoch

Fig 2. Opo the Dolphin Song

SOURCES

Internet Articles
Wikipedia, Opononi, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opononi
Wikipedia, Opo (dolphin), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opo_(dolphin)
NZ History, Death of Opo the friendly dolphin, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/death-of-opo-the-friendly-dolphin
New Zealand Folk Song, Opo the Friendly Dolphin Crombie Murdoch 1956, https://folksong.org.nz/opo/
Stuff.co.nz, Flashback: Opo the Friendly Dolphin remembered, https://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/102196643/flashback-opo-the-friendly-dolphin-remembered
Te Ara, The story of Opo (1st of 3), https://teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/4700/the-story-of-opo
Te Ara, OPO, https://teara.govt.nz/en/1966/opo
Hokianga, Opononi, https://hokianga.com/destinations/south-hokianga/opononi
Hokianga, Rangi Point, https://hokianga.com/destinations/north-hokianga/rangi-point
Wikipedia, Pelorus Jack, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pelorus_Jack
New Zealand Legal Information Institute, Fisheries (Dolphin Protection) Regulations 1956, http://www.nzlii.org/nz/legis/num_reg/fpr1956415/
New Zealand Legal Information Institute, Whaling Industry Act 1935 (26 GEO V 1935 No 12), http://www.nzlii.org/nz/legis/hist_act/wia193526gv1935n12282/
NOAA Fisheries, Common Bottlenose Dolphin, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/common-bottlenose-dolphin
NZ Herald, REMEMBERING: Opo the Friendly Dolphin 1956-1957, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/northern-advocate/news/remembering-opo-the-friendly-dolphin-1956-1957/IBXHFZZCNAXYBGM5WUJHGZROEA/

Books
Raewyn Peart, Dolphins of Aotearoa, Craig Potton Publishing, 2013
TVNZ, Millennium Moments: Great Days in New Zealand History, Reed Publishing, 1999

2 thoughts on “TALES I: Opo the Friendly Dolphin

  1. Thanks for the story guys. It’s sad that Opo died so young, and that some people, even back then, were kind of mean to him. You think of that kind of behavior as more of a modern trait, but it’s really not.
    Thanks for your hard work!
    A Kiwi far from home,
    Chris.

    PS. Have you thought about calling the podcast truestoriesnz or something similar? That way you can encompass crime, human interest stories and all under one umbrella without explanation. Just a suggestion, you can tell me to take a long walk off a short plank lol. All the best guys, and thanks again. Chur!!

    Like

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