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George Rix Seawitchartist






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Pelorus Jack, the Dolphin Pilot

Pelorus Jack, seemingly known to some as Peter the Porpoise, was a Risso's dolphin that guided ships through part of the Cook Strait, that windy sea separating the north and south islands of New Zealand. The story began in 1888 when he (she?) joined a schooner called the Brindle , he was nearly shot by crewmen as he swam around the bow, but the captain's wife intervened, he went on to behave in a way that had the ship follow him and a 'career' that would last until 1912 began, a legend was was born! The territory he operated was between Wellington and Nelson across Admiralty Bay, north of the French Pass which he was never known to enter. Being a Risso's dolphin he made a very rare sight in the Cook Strait, only 17 have been recorded to date since 1846, and this was at a time when far fewer would have been seen, so recognizing him would have certainly been very easy. Beakless, large and rather white with blue-grey markings, even wrongly described sometimes as an albino. Many Dolphin species are ship followers and bow wave riders, I've seen hundreds in my time, so he was set apart from the norm from the start. It is considered he was an orphan or a reject from his own kind, solitary Risso's dolphins are unusual and he may have sought company from ships which he 'guided'...although I don't think he would lead a ship where he wouldn't go himself and I doubt many Captains really put their maps away for him myself. So the legend might well be a myth, but I won't endeavor to spoil a good story either.

His fame traveled far, with people the world over making a voyage just to see him, the author Mark Twain was one of the celebrities who made the effort. In 1906 he was cited as New Zealand's top tourist attraction. On Christmas eve 1910 the British weekly newspaper The London Illustrated News reported on him, featuring a painting by Cecil King on it's front page. Alas, not all people were friendly it seems and it is said a passenger on the steamer Penguin took a shot at him, or the bow struck him, whatever, he gave that ship a wide berth for a long time...maybe he could recognize the engine even, after all dogs can recognize cars. Whatever, there was a local outcry and the New Zealand authorities acted. He was protected by the first ever law to protect a marine mammal, by Order in Council under the Sea Fisheries Act on September 26th 1904 that made it illegal to kill ANY Risso's dolphin in the Cook Strait, not that there were any others. Of the Penguin more intrigue follows, he did enventually return to her, but a few weeks later she was wrecked, in stormy weather off Wellington Heads in February 1909, with the loss of 75 lives. Was it revenge, karma, or just bad luck that could have had sceptics feeling triumphant? Truth is stranger than fiction.

He disappeared in 1912, aged at not less than 25 years old, about as long as a Risso's dolphin would live. By now his head was white and body pale, this is how I chose to paint him, an old dolphin with an old style ship, a steel hulled 20th century sailing ship. Some stories of foul play circulated, with foriegn whalers being one, a death bed confession even, but I think he plain lived his life out. Bon voyage Jack!

In Scotland, where many New Zealanders originated from there is a dance named after him, and a song was written of him in the 1920s.

A famous fish there used to be, called Pelorus Jack
He'd always swim far out to sea, when a ship came back
About her bow he'd dive and play, And keep with her right to the bay
And all on board would cheer and say:- "There's Pelorus Jack"

Pelorus, Pelorus, good Pelorus Jack
Pelorus, Pelorus, brave Pelorus Jack
Everyone cheered whenever he appeared
Pelorus, Pelorus, good Pelorus Jack.

For years he'd meet the ships like this, good Pelorus Jack
It seemed as though he'd never miss, any vessel's track
He surely was a jolly sort, and everybody as they ought
Declared he was a real old sport; Good Pelorus Jack

One day a ship came home again, poor Pelorus Jack
The people looked, but looked in vain, for his shining back
And now as day goes after day, the folks all sigh in mournful way
"Old Jack is gone" they sadly say; Poor Pelorus Jack.






All text and images and linked images are 2003-2015 George Rix .If you require any further information on permitted use, or a licence to republish any material, email me at