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VIDEO New twist in Moko dolphin tale

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He came with a message, he enchanted us and now, finally, he’s been reclaimed by the sea.

The Matakana Island sand dunes, the burial site of Moko the male bottlenose dolphin, has been desecrated by storms and tides and it’s most likely his remains have been washed back out to sea.

Click the image above to watch the video

Moko – forever a charmer. Photos: Andy Belcher.

“There can be no doubt about it,” says Tauranga naturalist Nathan Pettigrew.

He has regularly revisited the dunes adjacent to the navigation beacons at the southern tip of Matakana to say hello and pay his respects to Moko.

“Each time I went more and more of the dunes had eroded, more and more of the sand had gone,” he adds. “The last time you could see well and truly that Moko had gone. He’s been reclaimed by the sea.

“It’s a perfect ending to a great story,” says Nathan. “He came with a message for us, which was ‘hey! Let’s work together to look after our oceans’. He delivered the message and now he has been delivered back to the sea.”

“I feel good. He has gone home, gone back to where he belongs.”

Moko was the stuff of legend like the friendly dolphins before him. Shortly after he appeared around the Mahia Peninsula in 2007 he was credited with rescuing two stranded pygmy sperm whales.

Moko lead the distressed whales back through a narrow channel to the safety of deep water. The international media loved it.

Nathan has his own story of the boisterous bottlenose who could both thrill and frighten at the same time.

“A woman at Ohope pleaded with me to rescue her kayaker son because Moko wouldn’t let him land,” he says. “When the boy tried to come ashore, Moko would come up under the kayak and sweep it out to sea again.”

“He was far too quick, far too strong, and far too smart.

“He was just playing and stretching out his little game. He didn’t have his own family so he enjoyed playing with us. Moko could be overly playful and the rules got out of hand sometimes.”

Moko was a sensation around Mahia for two years before he meandered north, first to Gisborne and then to Whakatane in January 2010. There was the suggestion Moko was lonely, bored, and looking for playmates.

Fans and the media followed. In June 2010 Moko was again overcome by wanderlust and chased a fishing boat to Tauranga.


Nathan Pettigrew had a special relationship with Moko.

Nathan was immediately anxious for Moko. “I thought ‘this isn’t going to have a good outcome’,” he says.

“Tauranga’s too busy – a lot of boats and a lot of people. I had a bad feeling from the get go.”

Those ominous feelings were prophetic.

“On July 10, 2010 surfers discovered the badly decomposed carcass of a dolphin on Matakana Island,” explains Nathan. “We all knew it was Moko but prayed it wasn’t.”

While they awaited a DNA result, Massey University pathologists examined the dolphin’s teeth and compared them to pictures of Moko. It was unlikely to be any other dolphin. The nation was overcome by a collective grief.

“He was a beautiful soul,” says Nathan. “It was very upsetting because we had lost someone – something - special.”

But even after the autopsy, the cause of death would remain a mystery. Boat strike or drowning by entanglement were ruled out, as was the absence of bruising or fractures which would suggest blunt force trauma.

Such was the public attachment to this mammal that DOC scientists apologised profusely for not establishing the cause of death.

Moko was just four years old - a juvenile - and that made it all the harder.

In death came controversy as Moko was locked in a tug of love. The East Coast claimed the body - he carried the name of a local headland Mokotaho after all. Whakatane also claimed him, and they already had a statue.

But they all eventually agreed Ngai te Rangi, Matakana Island iwi, had rightful guardianship and that was where he would be buried.

He was accorded full funeral honours. 

There was a karakia for Moko in Rotorua, people wailed at a funeral procession through Whakatane, and they sobbed at the grave site on Matakana. It was an extraordinary outpouring.

Nathan goes part-way towards explaining. “He was the epitome of an amazing soul in the underwater sense. Dolphins are our counterparts - they’re a lot like us, an underwater version of who we are.”

“He was another gift sent from the sea to interact with us, and now we have closure,” says Nathan.

Moko’s gone from the dunes and back to the sea and sky.

Haere pai atu hoki pai mai.

Travel safely Moko.


Moko was buried on Matakana Island.


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