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What do NZ dolphins mean to New Zealanders?

Meet Gemma McGrath, an expert and campaigner working with WDC in New Zealand. We talked about what New Zealand dolphins mean to her.

Gemma McGrath
Gemma McGrath

What do New Zealand dolphins mean to you personally, as a New Zealander?

If you have ever seen a Hector’s dolphin, they melt your heart. They are little, and full of character. The calves are tiny, the cutest of the cute – newborns are the same size as rugby balls. Seeing them is an absolute delight!

I first experienced Hector’s dolphins in a special place called Porpoise Bay (these dolphins were called porpoises in the past). It was my 16th birthday, sunset, I was with my sisters and we had just arrived at the beach. There were several dolphins milling around in the surf, and we could feel them buzzing around us, it was amazing, and such a special experience. Back then, I had no idea I would end up dedicating so much of my life to helping them. I spent much of my 20s in a little town called Kaikoura – famous for its abundance of whales and dolphins, and more recently earthquakes. I worked at Whalewatch Kaikoura for many years and learnt far more out on the sea about whales and dolphins than I did at university! We used to see Hector’s dolphins in certain areas often. I used to go walking along the beach and see them every day there too. Over time, we started seeing fewer dolphins, and their conservation became really important to me. I couldn’t stand the fact so many get caught in fishing nets. They are such gentle and beautiful creatures.

How well known are these dolphins in New Zealand? And how aware are New Zealanders that they are in trouble?

The vast majority of New Zealanders have heard of Māui and Hector’s dolphins, and most people are aware of the conservation issues they face. In fact 80% of New Zealanders support strong protection measures to save them – even if this means paying more for fish, or more tax in the interim to save them. A recent report reveals both rural and urban New Zealanders are unhappy with the management of the fishing industry - with the high levels of fish waste and dumping, and number of dolphins, penguins and sea birds being caught by trawlers and set nets.

This species is unique to New Zealand, is there a sense among New Zealanders that they need to act to protect one of their own?

Hector’s and Māui dolphins are unique to New Zealand, making them not only extra special to New Zealanders but to the world. Even more reason to ensure they have a future they can thrive in.

Traditional Māori knowledge teaches us that this dolphin is an indicator species – Toi tū te Pahu, Toi tū te tai. If New Zealand dolphins are thriving, then the coastal ecosystem is thriving too.

The free Hector’s Dolphin Sightings App has been operating for nearly two years, and engages a growing user base of locals who repeatedly report sightings of Māui and Hector’s dolphins all around NZ coasts. This is helping connect people more to the dolphins and communicates the importance of collecting data, especially in areas where they are becoming rarer.