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Find the Rare Maui’s Dolphin

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What is the Maui’s dolphin?

Like the kiwi bird is a national icon of the land, the Maui’s dolphin is a national icon of the sea. Maui’s dolphin are only found on the west coast of the North Island. That’s it! You can find them nowhere else in the world. Another thing that makes these dolphins so special is that they are the world’s smallest species of dolphins – so small that you could fit them in a bathtub. (Although, we don’t recommend this). To see a pod of these dolphins is quite a rare but exciting experience.

This guide will show you the best places to spot Maui’s dolphins, but also importantly, what to do when you see them. Unfortunately, Maui’s dolphins are on the edge of extinction with the population under 100. In fact, the population figures in 2010/11 showed just 55 Maui’s dolphins left over the age of one year. By reporting your dolphin sighting, you are able to give the Department of Conservation vital data for the Maui’s dolphin protection measures.

Fast facts about the Maui’s dolphin

  • Maui’s dolphin are the world’s smallest dolphin species
  • They are the only species with a rounded black dorsal fin
  • They are most commonly found off the west coast of the North Island between Auckland and Raglan
  • If you spot them, phone 0800 DOC HOT immediately
  • If you see anyone setting fishing nets in a closed fishing area, call 0800 4 POACHER.
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What does a maui’s dolphin look like?

Maui’s dolphins are the sub-species of Hector’s dolphins, which are more numerous in the South Island. Although both Maui’s and Hector’s dolphins look very similar to each other, they are genetically distinct from each other.

On the other hand, Maui’s and Hector’s dolphins are very different from other dolphin species, as they are the world’s smallest dolphins. They are usually 1.3-1.7 metres long, with the females being the largest. They are also the only dolphins with a rounded black dorsal fin and black tail, flippers and eye patches.

Your best bet at distinguishing the Maui’s dolphin is simply by seeing this rounded black-finned dolphin off the shores of the North Island.

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Where to spot Maui’s dolphins

Usually swimming in pods (groups), Maui’s dolphins are found close to shore in water less than 20 metres deep. However, they have been known to range further offshore.

Currently, it is known that the dolphins use the mouths of the Manukau and Kaipara harbours, which are huge harbours on the west coast of the Auckland region. The dolphins have also been seen along many other harbours on the west coast, mostly between Auckland and Raglan in Waikato.

Maui’s dolphins don’t tend to stay in one place for long, as they have been found to travel 80km in under three weeks. Yet, they only tend to use about 30km of shoreline.

Although Maui’s dolphins did once inhabit the waters around the Taranaki region, sightings in this area have become extremely rare.

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Why are the Maui’s dolphin population declining?

There are both natural and human threats that affect the Maui’s dolphin population. Although we cannot control the natural factors of predation from sharks and orcas, extreme weather and disease, we can control the human-induced threats that are chillingly evident when you see the many photos released of dolphins caught in fishing nets.

Because human coastal activities and the Maui’s dolphins distribution all occur inshore in the same environment, this has catastrophic impacts on the dolphins – impacts the dolphins struggle to come back from due to their slow reproduction cycle.

Human threats to the Maui dolphins include:

  • Fishing by net setting, trawling and drift netting, which can cause dolphins to become entangled and drown.
  • Boats hitting the dolphins.
  • Marine litter being ingested or causing the dolphins to become entangled.
  • Marine mining and construction, such as seismic surveys.
  • General pollution.

If you plan to do some fishing during your time in New Zealand, be sure to read our guide to Fishing in New Zealand.

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Is there hope for the Maui’s dolphin’s survival?

This is still a question that scientists are trying to answer, but can only be answered by observing the remaining Maui’s dolphins in the wild. That’s where we come in. Check out the “How Can You Help?” section below.

From the data retrieved so far, it has been seen that at least two South Island Hector’s dolphins were among pods of Maui’s, suggesting interbreeding which may give Maui’s a genetic diversity boost. This may be promising for the future.

Already, a marine mammal sanctuary has been established on the West Coast of the North Island as a measure to protect the dolphins by enforcing stricter fishing regulations.

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How can you help?

If you see a Maui’s dolphin, that’s great! Snap up you photos if you can and take action by phoning 0800 DOC HOTline (0800 362 468) immediately.

Tell the DOC staff what you saw, ideally with the following information:

  • Date, time and location of the sighting, with GPS coordinates if possible and/or photos of surrounding landmarks.
  • The number of dolphins seen
  • Their behaviour

Additionally, if you see anyone setting fishing nets in closed areas (usually up to 100 metres from the shoreline in between Maunganui Bluff in Northland all the way to Oakura Beach in Taranaki), then call either 0800 DOC HOT or 0800 4 POACHER (0800 4 76224).

While you’re on the lookout, see if you can spot these 4 Super Rare Whales and Dolphins Seen in New Zealand.

More about New Zealand’s amazing wildlife

If wildlife spotting is your thing, (and why wouldn’t it be?), take a look at these pages:

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