The Amazing Story of Pelorus Jack
Pelorus Jack ( 1888 – April 1912) was a Risso's dolphin that was famous for meeting and escorting ships through a stretch of water in Cook Strait, New Zealand, between 1888 and 1912. Pelorus Jack was usually spotted in Admiralty Bay between Cape Francis and Collinet Point, near French Pass, a notoriously dangerous channel used by ships travelling between Wellington and Nelson
Pelorus Jack was first seen around 1888 when it appeared in front of the schooner Brindle when the ship approached French Pass, a channel located between D'Urville Island and the South Island. When the members of the crew saw the dolphin bobbing up and down in front of the ship, they wanted to kill him – but, fortunately, the captain’s wife was able to talk them out of it. To their amazement, the dolphin then proceeded to guide the ship through the narrow channel. And for years thereafter, he safely guided almost every ship that came by. The area is dangerous to ships with rocks and strong currents but no shipwrecks occurred when Jack was present.
Over the years, his fame grew. However, his celebrity attracted not only well wishers.On one sad occasion, a drunken passenger aboard a ship named the Penguin took out a gun and shot at Pelorus Jack. The crew was furious, and when they saw Jack swim away with blood pouring from his body they came close to lynching the passenger. The Penguin had to negotiate the channel without Pelorus Jack's help, as did the other ships that came through in the next few weeks. But one day the dolphin reappeared, apparently recovered from his wound. He had evidently forgiven the human species, because he once again proceeded to guide ship after ship through the channel. When the Penguin showed up again, however, the dolphin immediately disappeared.
For a number of years thereafter, Pelorus Jack continued to escort ships through French Pass - but never again the Penguin, and the crew of that ship never saw the dolphin again. Ironically, the Penguin was later wrecked in 1909 and a large number of passengers and crew were drowned, as it sailed - unguided - through French Pass.
After the shooting, people demanded that Pelorus Jack be protected by law, which led to a 1904 order in council (renewed twice before he died). He became protected by Order in Council under the Sea Fisheries Act on 26 September 1904. Pelorus Jack remained protected by that law until his disappearance in 1912. It is believed that Pelorus Jack was the first individual sea creature protected by law in any country.
He was one of New Zealands greatest tourist attractions. The London news described him in 1906 -
"For the last twenty years no steamer has been known to pass this Sound unaccompanied, for at least part of the way, by a large white fish, part shark, part dolphin, called Pelorus Jack...... He is first noticed leaping out of the sea in the distance, but in a few moments is swimming through the water just in front of the ship's stem. Sometimes he remains only a few moments leaping out of the water and swimming just ahead; then he shoots away out of sight. But at other times he stays for quite ten minutes. He is said never to come to sailing ships or wooden-bottomed steamers; but no matter which way a steamer crosses the Sound, whether by day or night, Pelorus Jack is always in attendance as a sort of pilot."
Charlie Moeller, who maintained the marine light at French Pass, claims Pelorus Jack was washed up on a beach, where his carcass rotted. This latter account is likely; the dolphin was at least 24 years old, and probably died of old age.
The legend of Pelorus Jack lived on after his death. A chocolate bar was named after him and he is the subject of a number of songs and a famous Scottish dance.
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