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Moko, the Lonely New Zealand Dolphin Who Loved Too Much

Photo of Moko earlier this year courtesy of Chris & Lara Pawluk
Moko, a bottlenose dolphin who lives off Mahia Beach, New Zealand, is famous for being friendly to people in the water. But Sunday, she nearly loved a visitor to death. “We were playing around for a while but then when I wanted to go back in, he just wanted to keep playing. I became exhausted and started to panic,” the woman told the BBC. When she screamed, a local bar owner came out in a dinghy to rescue her.

Moko is what’s known as a “lone dolphin,” a rare but well-documented kind of dolphin that seems to want to hang out with people. Since it’s winter in New Zealand now, speculation is that she just got lonely because there aren’t as many people in the water.

The standard criticism of people swimming with wild dolphins is that dolphins get annoyed or injured. But, even Project Jonah chief executive Kimberly Muncaster, who has warned people to keep their distance from the chummy 3-year-old dolphin, acknowledged that Moko actively seeks out people’s attention. “Moko has undoubtedly captured the hearts of Kiwis, but she is in danger of getting hurt if she isn’t treated with respect, and those seeking to get close to her are also putting themselves at risk,” Muncaster warned last year.

The woman, who was too embarrassed to give her name, says Moko wasn’t trying to hurt her. “I’ve spent quite a bit of time swimming with Moko and I’m a strong swimmer so I wasn’t worried at first,” she said.

Moko has been hanging around Mahia Beach for about a year and half, dragging in tourists–whiles sometimes dragging buoys out to sea for sport. “She follows boats in and out of the bay and plays havoc with my cray pots. She bunts the buoys and drags the pots together, tangling them,” says Mahia local Bill Shortt. Moko also gives people presents of fish. She gained worldwide fame for saving two pygmy sperm whales.

Marine Biologist Ingrid Visser says Moko has scars from a boat propeller and fish hook and that has been the demise of many other “lone dolphins.” “In some areas of the world these ‘lone’ dolphins have inhabited the area for many years,” he told the Gisborne Herald. “However, it is sad to note that of the nearly 30 individual ‘lone’ dolphins which have been well documented from around the world, at least 14 have been injured or even killed as a result of interacting closely with humans.”

Seems like Moko would stand a better chance against boats and fishing lines in the harbor she knows so well. I hope this incident gets more people to spend some time with her so she doesn’t get lonely. It seems like a wonderful animal tourism opportunity: come see Moko, the friendly dolphin, in the low season, when she really, really wants your company.

Want to see a dolphin yourself? Here’s a map I’m putting together of some (mostly US) places?
Got a suggestion for another one? Send it here.

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