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ew Zealand was one of the first countries to be colonized by the Dutch. In 1642 navigator Abel Tasman became the first European to discover a group of islands in the South Pacific that would later be known as New Zealand. The British also joined in 1840 and formally annexed the islands whilst establishing the permanent European settlement at Wellington.

Since then a lot of trade routes have been formed for minerals and other precious stones that were found on these islands. The only problem was that the narrow straits that were connecting the islands were difficult to pass for sailors. Strong water currents were pushing the trade ships into boulders, destroying them because sailors were not able to tell where the whirlpools were.

A Hero for Sailors

The worst strait was at the French Pass, notoriously known for many ships not making the trip due to a large number of whirlpools. Despite how strong 19th-century ships had become near the end of the century, they were still no match for mother nature. Maybe this is why mother nature herself sent a guide for those sailors.

The northern part of New Zealand, Point on French Pass
The northern part of New Zealand, Point on French Pass (Source: Google Maps)

Dolphins were a common sight in the northern part of New Zealand and still are to this day, but there was a special dolphin considered by sailors as a true hero. He was first sighted in 1888 by a trade ship that was approaching the French pass as the dolphin guided the ship between the whirlpools and safely out of the French pass.

The sex of the dolphin was never defined however researchers believe it was a male based on the mammal’s size. Sailors have nicknamed the dolphin Pelorus Jack with reference to the Marlborough Sounds region where Jack would wait for ships in order to guide them. Jack was a dolphin from the rare Grampus Griseus species, better known as Risso’s dolphin from the naturists Antonio Risso.

Pelorus Jack was extremely precise and brave as it would sail right in front of the ships guiding them all the way. After a couple of years, sailors would not even enter the French pass until Jack came to guide them. He would be present-day and night with joy to help sailors. Jack became famous around the world after an article was published by the London Daily Mail in 1906.

“For the last twenty years no steamer has been known to pass this Sound unaccompanied, for at least part of the way, by a large white fish, part shark, part dolphin, called Pelorus Jack. … He is first noticed leaping out of the sea in the distance, but in a few moments is swimming through the water just in front of the ship’s stem. Sometimes he remains only a few moments leaping out of the water and swimming just ahead; then he shoots away out of sight. But at other times he stays for quite ten minutes. He is said never to come to sailing ships or wooden-bottomed steamers; but no matter which way a steamer crosses the Sound, whether by day or night, Pelorus Jack is always in attendance as a sort of pilot.” (Daily Mail 1906)

Famous writers such as Mark Twain and Frank Bullen sailed to the French Pass just to see Jack and they briefly mentioned him in their works.

Fame comes with hate

One interesting event was in 1904 when a passenger aboard the SS Penguin (one of the first steamboats to sail New Zealand) tried to shoot Pelorus Jack who was guiding the ship. The man was arrested on the ship but once they came to the land he was released as there was no law at the time stopping people from shooting dolphins.

Dolphins are the most intelligent mammals out there and this is something that can be seen from Jack’s life. The next time SS Penguin came to traverse the French Pass Jack was nowhere to be seen. This was because he knew that he was wronged and saw this specific ship as a threat. During the same period of time he would help other ships and steamboats, but not SS Penguin.

Sailors became so used to having Jack guiding them that they considered it would be suicide passing without his help.

That same time SS Penguin was not accompanied by Jack it ended up having its hull crash into a boulder. Over 75 passengers on the ship died and this was definitely something that could have been avoided if Jack would have guided the ship, but the dolphin was afraid he may be killed by the people on the board of SS Penguin due to the previous incident.

An order in Council was signed by Lord Plunket prohibiting harm to Risso’s dolphins in and around Cook Strait
An order in Council was signed by Lord Plunket prohibiting harm to Risso’s dolphins in and around Cook Strait (Source: Archives New Zealand)

On the 26th of September 1904, an Order in Council was signed by Lord Plunket prohibiting harm to Risso’s dolphins in and around New Zealand. This order was in response to the event that took place on SS Penguin where a man tried to shoot Jack. Within the Archives of New Zealand, there is also a clip that features Pelorus Jack being filmed whilst guiding a ship. Many people didn’t actually believe the story about Jack, thinking that this was just a legend invented by Sailors that became bored, but the clip is the only proof needed for his existence.

A mysterious death

In April of 1912 Pelarous Jack mysteriously disappeared. Ships waited even days for him but he was not seen. What exactly happened with Jack is unsure but he must have died. The most believed story at the time was that Jack hit a barnacled hull that cut him. This is possible as he was always right next to the hull of ships when guiding them.

Some other theories are that he was shot by someone out of hate. Others say that during that period of time many Norwegian fishermen came to New Zealand and started harpooning everything they saw moving, so he may have been caught by fishermen that we’re unaware of the law given out by the council in 1904.

Another theory could be that he simply died of natural causes. Risso’s dolphins live between 20 to 40 years and Jack spent 24 years of his life guiding ships through the French Pass (from 1888 to 1912). Nevertheless, Jack has definitely had a huge impact on the lives of so many people.

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