Hector’s dolphin

Tutumairekurai (special ocean dweller) or Tupoupou (rise vertically)

Hector's dolphin was named after Sir James Hector, curator of the Colonial Museum in Wellington, who was interested in biology and who first examined a skeleton of this dolphin species.

Hector's dolphin is not only one of the rarest dolphins in the world, but also one of the smallest. It measures only 1.4 metres at its longest, and weighs between 38-48 kilograms.

Hector's dolphins at Kaikoura
Hector's dolphins at Kaikoura. 22 July 1989. Christchurch Star Archive. In copyright.

It is the only New Zealand dolphin with a rounded dorsal (back) fin, and a sloping snout, unlike the protruding beak of the bottlenose dolphin. Its colour is a combination of light grey, creamy white, and black.

A female will give birth to a calf every two or three years. The calf matures at about 8 years old. Hector's dolphins live to about 15 to 18 years old. They are a sociable animal, playing in groups of up to 12 dolphins, and often "surfing" on beaches.

Found only in New Zealand waters, the Hector's dolphin is known as the "down under dolphin". Most are found in the coastal waters around Banks Peninsula, Te Waewae Bay in Southland, and along the West Coast of the South Island, although a small population lives off the west coast of the North Island. There are two sub-species of Hector's dolphin, the South Island Hector's dolphin, and the Māui dolphin which is found off the West Coast of the North Island. These sub-species are distinctly different genetically, and the Māui dolphins are significantly more endangered - just 63 individuals over one year of age romain.

Hector's dolphins feed close to the shore on small fish and squid. Some of these varieties are the fish commercial and recreational fishermen are trying to catch in their set nets. Often dolphin are caught in the nets, trying to get the fish.

Between 1984 and 1988, 230 Hector's dolphins were recorded as having been drowned in nets along the Canterbury coast. This was from an estimated population of 740 dolphins. Set nets were banned in the area and a marine mammal sanctuary was established around parts of Banks Peninsula, covering an area of 1140 square kilometres.

The beautiful endangered Hector’s dolphins of Banks peninsula
The beautiful endangered Hector’s dolphins of Banks Peninsula. August 2019. Genevieve Robinson: Entry in the 2019 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt. In copyright.

Another threat to Hector's dolphins is marine pollution, in the form of plastic bags and other rubbish in which they may get caught or they may eat. Because they have a low birth-rate, the dolphin population does not recover quickly from these losses.

There are about 15,000 Hector's dolphins. Hector's dolphins have now become a popular tourist attraction, especially for those who want the opportunity to swim with them.

More information

Hector's Dolphin resources in our catalogue
Down-under dolphins Jenny Jones
The Penguin natural world of New Zealand Gerard Hutching
Hector's Dolphin Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai website
Maūi's Dolphin, a subspecies of Hector's dolpin, Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai website
Hector’s and Maūi’s dolphins Te Ara
Our full list of New Zealand Birds and Animals
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