The Truth About Pelorus Jack

Between the North and South Islands that make up New Zealand is the Cook Strait. Named after the British explorer Captain James Cook, the Cook Strait connects the Tasman Sea with the South Pacific Ocean (via NZ History). Because of how the islands are situated, the strait is also one of the most treacherous waterways in the world. Winds from New Zealand’s mountainous regions, coupled with warm and cold water currents colliding, make the waterway nearly unnavigable (via NZ History) for many vessels.

Back in the latter part of the 1880s, sea captains began noticing a dolphin hanging around the entrance of Cook Strait, known as Pelorus Sound (via Culture Trip). Later identified as a Risso’s dolphin — a species of dolphin that is rare around New Zealand — the mammal would swim alongside ships as they reached the part of Cook Strait that narrows down to its most dangerous, the French Pass. In fact, according to Today I Found Out, only a total of 12 Risso’s dolphins have ever been reported around the region.

Don't mess with Jack

Affectionately known as Pelorus Jack, the dolphin guided ships through the Cook Strait for over 24 years. While there is some contention whether Pelorus Jack was actually guiding vessels down the strait or merely just swimming and playing along with the ship (via Today I Found Out), Pelorus Jack did call the strait his home. And sea captains took much comfort from the notion that they would be guided by a professional that knew the waters. The tales of Pelorus Jack would circle the world, making the dolphin a bit of a celebrity. According to Culture Trip, writers Mark Twain and Frank T. Bullen were just some of the celebrities of the era that headed to the land of Kiwis to marvel at the dolphin.

But, not everyone that headed to the region was a fan of Jack. In 1904, while the SS Penguin was navigating the strait, with Pelorus swimming alongside, a passenger took a shot at the dolphin (via Culture Trip). Missing Jack, the passenger was tackled and disarmed before firing off another shot. Outraged by the incident, locals to the area demanded protection for Jack. Late in 1904, Governor Lord Plunkett signed an order that made it illegal to harm any creatures living in the strait, including Jack. And how did Pelorus respond to being fired upon? He never swam with the SS Penguin again when it entered the strait. According to NZ History, the SS Penguin wrecked upon Thoms Rock in 1909. Out of the 105 onboard, only 30 survived.

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