Whakatane's Moko the Dolphin

(PR.co.nz) Moko – the attention-seeking celebrity dolphin – is basking in a fresh round of stardom in his new home waters at Whakatane, on New Zealand’s North Island east coast.

While Whakatane’s newest tourist attraction continues to delight locals and visitors, the dolphin has also recently grabbed the attention of a Japanese television crew and gained additional press exposure when photographed nose-to-nose with a local fisherman’s dog.

Moko is also the subject of a documentary, and is earning a reputation as a generous fisherman because he likes to offer his catch to surfers and boogie boarders.

Mahia to Whakatane
The friendly bottlenose dolphin, once resident in the Mahia area near Gisborne, followed a fishing trawler around the east coast and has been settled in Whakatane waters since early January.

Moko is now a regular sight in Whakatane’s popular bays and beaches, and passes a lot of time in the river where he swims with local children and a new friend – Bakes the dog.

Bakes the dog – a close companion and deckhand to charter fisherman John ‘Tuna’ Baker – and Moko came nose-to-nose this week when John Baker was docking his charter vessel Ma Cherie in Whakatane harbour.

Bakes the dog
Bakes, a three-year-old Jack Russell, had already been in the water swimming with Moko, but Baker said he got nervous and pulled the dog out as he was aware of the need to be protective of the dolphin.

“Bakes spends a lot of the time on the boat but is very orientated towards fishing and chasing rabbits. The two of them had a couple of swims around each other and once Bakes was out on the jetty, they touched noses,” said Baker.

In New Zealand Māori custom, touching noses is known as ‘hongi’ and signifies the joining together of tangata whenua (hosts) and manuhiri (visitors).

Whakatane visitors
Since the dolphin had become a regular visitor to Whakatane river, Baker has noticed a huge increase in the number of visitors in the area.

“I’m told the local tourist office can get up to 100 calls a day about Moko and some people even flew out from Switzerland just to see him. He is such an amazing dolphin, a real character and so happy to be around people. Nothing seems to faze him,” said Baker.

Baker, a charter boat operator in the Whakatane region since 1983 and a fisherman for 20 years before that, is delighted Moko has set up home in the area and says he sees the dolphin regularly.

“He’s often up the river or around at Otarawairere, Whale Bay or Ohope. Moko loves those spaghetti tubes kids learn to swim with and also boogie boards.

“He’s even grabbed fish and taken them to people on their surf boards or boogie boards – and took an eel to someone standing in the shallows of the river recently,” said Baker.

Moko on the web
For Chris Redhead, another local who admits to having been fascinated with marine mammals since childhood, Moko’s arrival is a wish come true.

Redhead, from Awateri – a 15-minute drive from Whakatane – has set up a website mokoinwhakatane.com to share his experiences through a daily blog. He regularly posts images and videos, and the site links to Moko’s Twitter and Facebook pages.

Moko’s Facebook page already has 1736 fans.

Redhead says the website’s main function is to record and study Moko’s behaviour, and offers useful information for anyone wanting to know what Moko is up to.

Care and respect for Moko
New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) says that while Moko is an exceptionally friendly dolphin who loves company and will happily play for hours with swimmers, surfers and kayakers, it is important to remember he is a wild animal and should be approached with care and respect.

A Moko protection team has been mobilised with a NZ$5000- inflatable rigid boat dedicated to looking after the dolphin as well as the crowds of people who take to the water to play with him.

The ‘Moko Mobile’ bought by the Whakatane Community Board will be used by Moko’s official minders – Peter Cavanagh, Kirsty Carrington and Jackie Jacks.

Cavanagh – who is Whakatane harbour superintendent – says the boat will have a guard on the propeller to protect Moko and swimmers.

Moko has been seen stealing fish from nets in the Whakatane river so the community board is also looking at a fishing net restriction to protect Moko and swimmers, Cavanagh said.

Moko minder
Kirsty Carrington, a Whakatane solo mother says she is thrilled with her new job as a Moko minder. She had been looking for work as a teacher but now spends hours a day protecting the dolphin and his admirers.

Carrington wears a bright gold cap that picks her out in the water as the person to speak to about inter-acting with Moko.

DOC says that the best advice for people wanting to have a safe up-close-and-personal experience with Moko is to go out with one of Whakatane’s three marine mammal swimming and viewing permit holders.

Field centre supervisor Fiona Hennessey said Diveworks, Whales & Dolphin Watch, and White Island Tours all had permits, and would ensure the safety of both Moko and their swimmers.

Media Release 11 March 2010 from newzealand.com.