Pelorus Jack


A world famous dolphin

For nearly 25 years, Pelorus Jack, a Risso's dolphin, met and escorted ships travelling between Wellington and Nelson across Admiralty Bay, north of French Pass.

In 1904, he was protected by Order in Council under the Sea Fisheries Act - possibly the only individual sea creature to be legally protected anywhere in the world. He remained a protected creature until his disappearance in 1912.

This 1920's parlour piano song (words by P. Cole and music by H. Rivers) testifies to his popular fame:

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. 

Pelorus Jack. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives 19950370073
Click image to enlarge
Pelorus Jack. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives 19660491040Click image to enlarge

It is thought that ‘Jack' was orphaned, which may have explained his unusual behaviour pattern. It is also presumed that Jack enjoyed getting a ride from the ships' pressure waves as they passed through his territory.1 Jack delighted passengers, who came from all over the world, some travelling the Nelson/Wellington route just to see him.2

He was described in a letter in the London Daily Mail 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." 3

Cover of the London Illustrated News, 24 Dec 1910, featuring a painting by Cecil King of Pelorus Jack escorting a steamship. Alexander Turnbull Library
Click image to enlarge

In 1906, Pelorus Jack was cited as a chief tourist attraction in New Zealand, with many visitors from Australia and beyond taking the ‘Sounds excursion': "his exploits have been spread abroad through the medium of guide books, and have been much improved in travellers' tales." 4

Much loved by seafarers and passengers alike, a painting of Pelorus Jack appeared on the front cover of the London Illustrated News  on 24 December, 1910.5

Jack was first seen sometime in the 1880s. There is a story that the crew of the first ship that saw him wanted to harpoon him like a whale, but some horrified women on board stopped them, and he swam alongside the ship for 12 hours.6 "It is said he has the tail of a shark, the fins of another fish, and the head of another, that he has a blow and spouts like a whale," reported the Rev E.W. Matthews who, while travelling both ways, only saw him briefly.7

In fact, Jack was later identified from photographs as a Risso's dolphin (Grampus griseus)- a beakless dolphin with a similar shape to a pilot whale - and his sex was never verified.8 He was variously reported as being nine feet (2.7 metres) to 15 feet (4.5 metres) long- although this may have been related to sightings over the years as he grew to maturity.

There are many stories about Jack, including a myth that he guided ships through the turbulent French Pass- local residents said he never went through French Pass.9 But the strangest story is about Pelorus Jack and the steamer, the Penguin. Whether Jack was struck by the Penguin in 1904, 10; or a passenger shot at him from the bow of the Penguin, from that day on he gave the steamer a wide berth until some weeks before the Penguin was wrecked in 1909. 11

The only surviving female passenger of the Penguin, Ada Hannam, reported feeling a ‘strange sensation' as Jack dived and leapt round the bow of the Penguin as they left Nelson on the afternoon of 12 February, 1909. It ran into stormy weather in Tory Channel and sank off Wellington Heads with the loss of 75 lives, including Ada's husband and children.12

Pelorus Jack: the White Dolphin of French Pass, New Zealand from J Cowan, 1911 (photo taken by Capt. C. F. Post, of the N.Z. Govt. SS Tutanekai).
Click image to enlarge
Pelorus Jack. Nelson Provincial Museum. Bett Collection 31452
Click image to enlarge

There was always concern when Jack didn't appear.  In March 1911, a male dolphin resembling Jack was washed up at D'Urville Island, with locals thinking it could be Jack.13However, in April of that year, he was seen ‘as frisky as ever'.14

Pelorus Jack was last definitely seen at the end of 1912, and while there were various rumours that he had been shot, he would have been at least 25 years old when he disappeared - the normal lifespan of a dolphin.15

In 1929, Bishop Bennett of Aotearoa  said Māori at the settlement of Ohoka, near Jack's old haunts, had told him that there had been an old tradition of such a fish who was a taniwha, or pet fish of a tohunga. 16

Another Maori legend says that  Kupe, the great navigator who is reputed to have discovered New Zealand, placed one of his guardian taniwha, Tuhirangi, in Cook Strait / Te Moana-a-Raukawa to guide and protect canoes.  He was later believed to have reappeared in the form of Pelorus Jack.17 Legend says the taniwha was sent by Tangaroa, the ocean god, to watch over Kupe, and that the taniwha can rest on the bottom of the ocean for long periods of time, until called by Tangaroa again.18

See how Pelorus Jack delighted tourists on Te Ara19 (film clip)

Updated August, 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. McLintock, A.H. (ed.)(1966) Pelorus Jack. In An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Retrieved from Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand (2009).
  2. Interislander logo. Retrieved from Interislander 17 April 2012.
  3. The famous Pelorus Jack (1906, February 24) Marlborough Express, p. 4.
  4. Record Tourist Traffic (1906, January 13) Marlborough Express, p. 3.
  5. Cover of the London Illustrated News, 24 Dec 1910, featuring a painting by Cecil King of Pelorus Jack escorting a steamship.
  6. Soljak, P.J. (1946, March 2) The Dolphin that Meets all the Ships. Saturday Evening Post, p41-41
  7. Round the world (1907, December 19) Nelson Evening Mail, p. 1.
  8. Pelorus Jack (n.d.) Museum of Wellington City and Sea
  9. McLintock
  10. Pelorus Jack (1905, November 15)  Wairarapa Daily Times, p. 5.
  11. Pelorus Jack and the penguin (1909, February 20) Bush Advocate, p. 2.
  12. Penguin self guided walk (n.d.) Karori cemetery heritage trail:
  13. Is he dead? (1911, March 22)  Hawera & Normanby Star, p. 5.
  14. Pelorus Jack seen on Monday as frisky as ever (1911, April 5) Colonist, p. 6.
  15. McLintock
  16. A Maori taniwha (1929, June 21) Evening Post, p. 4.
  17. Keane, B, (2009) Taniwha - Taniwha of the sea. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
  18. Pelorus Jack (n.d.).
  19. Hutching, G. (2011) Dolphins. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

Want to find out more about the Pelorus Jack ? View Further Sources here.

Do you have a story about this subject? Find out how to add one here.

Comment on this story

Post your comment


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments

Further sources - Pelorus Jack



  • Main, W. (2005). Story of Pelorus Jack. New Zealand Memories, 56. p.30-32.
  • Monin, L. (2017, January 14-20) In the dolphin's wake. New Zealand Listener, 2557 (3998), p.36-38.
  • Webber, G. (1970) Another unsolved problem concering Pelorus Jack. Journal of the Nelson Historical Society, 2(4), p.26.
  • Yarwood, V. (Sep/Oct 2017).The pilot of French Pass. New Zealand Geographic, 147. p.108.

From Papers Past:


Web Resources