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Image: Getty / Tina Tiller
Image: Getty / Tina Tiller

ScienceJanuary 17, 2023

One million species face extinction, but saving the Māui dolphin still matters to me

Image: Getty / Tina Tiller
Image: Getty / Tina Tiller

It might be selfish to focus on one species when entire ecosystems are under threat. But I was worried about the Māui dolphin when I did a speech about them at intermediate school, and I’m still worried now.

Extinction is all-consuming and eternal. When an animal, plant or fungi goes extinct, an entire system changes, like how a family is never the same after the loss of a child. To my generation, extinction seems to be a cascade, an uncontrollable phenomenon we have set the trigger for. Often we barely look up from our daily lives to notice it happening. Yet, in the face of more species dipping into non-existence, we grasp at the straws of what is left.

Of the 30 identified dolphin species roaming 71% of Earth’s surface, the ocean, Māui dolphins are the smallest. They range from 120cm to 162 cm in length and only weigh up to 50kg, the biggest of them shorter and lighter than me. Māui are one of two dolphin species endemic to Aotearoa, the other being the Hector’s dolphin. They’ve been distinct populations for between 15,000 and 16,000 years; however, until recently, they were recognised as one species, with Māui subsumed into the category of cephalorhynchus hectori – the Hector’s dolphin.

It was only in 2002 that Alan N. Baker, a Wellington-based natural scientist specialising in marine biology, published a paper proving that Aotearoa was home to two genetically distinct dolphin species; Hector’s dolphins lived around the South Island, and on the West Coast of the North Island, between Mokau and Kaipara Harbour, were Māui dolphins, C. hectori Māui. The two species look very alike, as siblings or cousins might: both have white markings curving along their underbelly, with a mixture of grey and black colouring their foreheads, backs and tails. The dorsal fin of Māui and Hectors dolphins sets them apart from other dolphin species: it’s not a triangular shape but a smooth curve, tucking itself into the dolphin’s back, like the shape of a wave or korū.

Māui dolphins are homebodies, tending to stay within 30km of the shore, enjoying the relatively shallow waters between the Manukau Harbour and Port Waikato. In the 1970s, it’s estimated there were around 1,600 Māui dolphins – never a big population, but sustaining. Around 2014, the population dipped to just 55.

Hector’s dolphins (pictured) and Māui dolphins are almost indistinguishable and were thought to be the same species until 2002. (Photo: Getty Images)

On the other side of Aotearoa, a concerned pre-teen (me), born in the year the Māui dolphin was named, delivered an intermediate school speech on the critically endangered dolphin. A campaign launched by the World Wildlife Fund gained traction: it was called The Last 55 and it urged leaders to commit to urgent action to save the Māui dolphin by creating protected areas of habitat where the dangers of nets, trawling, and boat activity were banned. Campaigners from the World Wildlife Fund said we were “obligated to the world” to save the dolphin. The author of a favourite childhood book The Whale Rider, Witi Ihimeria, lodged his support, as did singer/songwriter Jamie McDell – whose album I’d just purchased to play on my bright pink stereo. I don’t remember if these things motivated me, but something clicked, and all I could talk about was Māui dolphins and how there were 55 of them left. That this species could disappear entirely was inconceivable to me, a 12-year-old just beginning to learn about the growing environmental crises facing the Earth.

An app created for the Last 55 campaign tried to put a human spin on the dolphins’ plight: taking information from your Facebook friends list, it helped you imagine what it would be like to lose 55 friends. It was an attempt to communicate the seriousness of extinction, but social media struggles to convey that level of erasure.

I’ve still never seen a Māui dolphin. Their rarity means they are elusive, and yet being endemic to Aotearoa meant they are intimately entwined with the connections we make to our country. Maybe it was nationalism, equating my place as a Pākehā New Zealander with the protection and perseveration of all our native species and environments. Or maybe it was a relationship closer to home.

In many ways, we form relationships with dolphins that are personal, social and entertaining. I spent my childhood growing up in Tairāwhiti, camping along the East Coast every summer at Poaua, Tolaga, Anaura and Waipiro, or when we were back in town, taking every opportunity to dive under the waves at Waikanae Beach. When I was five, a lone dolphin began to make himself known along the East Coast, mainly by stealing boogie boards. He was named Moko.

Moko was a bottlenose dolphin, a common species swimming around the world. Bottlenose dolphins are known for their high intelligence and mimicry of human behaviour, making them a favourite for entertainment shows in water parks. Moko frequented popular beaches around Hawkes Bay, the Bay of Plenty and Tairāwhiti, playing with swimmers and surfers, stealing foam noodles, boogie boards and paddles. As kids, we were fondly warned to hold onto our boogie boards, because Moko was known to grab the ankle strings and swim away, the board trailing behind him. I remember swimming at Waikanae with visiting family, and my older cousin paddling out with me to where Moko was, just to be close to him playing. In 2008, people celebrated Moko’s perceived rescue of two pygmy sperm whales, a mother and calf, by leading them away from a path that would have beached them at Mahia peninsula. For this act, he was named one of Time’s top ten heroic animals in 2011, one year after his death. He was loved.

I wonder now why he was on his own, visiting a species so unlike himself. I wonder if he was lonely, if such a thing was possible – an abundance of research on bottlenose dolphins shows they have high emotional intelligence, alongside their sophisticated social relationships, something akin to culture. Moko was young, still a juvenile – he should have stayed with his mother, and his pod, until he was five or 10 years old. But he travelled alone, never a pod in sight. Moko gravitated toward the emotional connections and joy he found in humans, but we were not the animals he was meant to be with.

Bottlenose dolphins have always been a Kiwi crowd favourite. (Photo: Getty Images)

As kids, this didn’t concern us; Moko was a delight, our own celebrity dolphin. But in 2010, after two years of his antics, Moko was found dead. The autopsy ruled out boatstrike, but couldn’t decisively come to a cause of death. His body was blackened from two weeks of decomposition on Matakana Island. Stuff reported that he was unrecognisable, if not for his eight missing teeth, likely lost from chewing anchor lines. His body was scarred and pocked from encounters and collisions with kayakers, boats and fishing lines. He was four years old. NZ Herald wrote that the people who cared for Moko, being his daily companions in a DOC effort to protect the dolphin, grieved with the pain of losing a family member. While there was no certain cause of death, being so young meant it was most likely from unnatural causes

Moko was not the first famous dolphin to live in Aotearoa’s waters. In the early 1900s, a Rissos dolphin named Pelorus Jack escorted ships across the Cook Strait and through the French Pass. He was protected by law in 1904. Rumours said Norwegian whalers killed him, but the true cause of death was never established. In Opononi, in Hokianga, the town of 678 people still commemorates Opo the dolphin, with statues and shops named in her honour. She played with children through the summer of 1955/56, only to be found dead in March. There was no decided cause, but reports suggested she was killed by fishermen. Opo has had songs and films made about her, and Te Papa hosts a photograph collection.

These dolphins all formed a relationship with humans and they were all harmed by us in the process. Yet, a deep respect for the dolphins lingers. Burials were conducted with local iwi to convey the respect worthy of a taonga. They are remembered by popular culture, and by the communities that lived with them. Moko remains imprinted in the treasured childhood memories of a generation from the East Coast – as I write this essay, I mention him to friends, and their faces light up. Maybe this is why, in the face of a species’ extinction, we scramble to save what is left.

We couldn’t save Moko, despite there being warnings and concerns about his safety in busy the ports around Tairāwhiti and Hawkes Bay. There have been many more warnings about Māui dolphins. The Last 55 campaign never really went away, but it slowly faded, and other desperate species captured the public imagination. As it continued, the population of Māui dolphins dipped to 54, and then 45. But in 2021, a new research project to catalogue Māui dolphins recorded a population of 63. It had grown a little, but still, only 20% of the Māui’s coastal home is protected from commercial activity. Fishery companies tout that the main threat to the dolphins is the viral cat-borne disease toxoplasmosis, but this is contested by environmentalists. Further threats come from climate change-induced ocean changes and acidification, which could reduce the livable habitat for the dolphins. It is hard to know whether the smallest dolphin species will persist.

Many have tried to save the Māui dolphins, just as many tried to save Moko. Despite never having seen a Māui dolphin, I was inspired by the campaign to help save them. Even as we grasp onto a single species, the wave of extinction rolls on. We mourn the animals we have loved, animals we felt closest to our human predicament. Like many, my attention shifted and moved as I aged, and Māui Dolphins occupied a small note among temperature graphs and reports from the ICUN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). But humans still struggle to save the dolphins.

In asking why I and many others grasp onto the notion of saving a single species – in this case, the Māui Dolphin – it might help to turn to justice. Justice: a concern for the genuine peace and right to a dignified life of all peoples. Framing extinction as a question of justice throws many ideas into play: firstly, accepting that the extinction crisis, as we have created it, is an injustice. This implies that non-human animals have an intrinsic right to life, beyond the value they bring to us. Is justice, then, saving all species, or focusing our energies on the ones we find ourselves in relationships with, entangled with notions of identity and home and childhood?

Western philosophy, for most of its time, has focused on humans as the subject of justice. More recently, scholars such as Martha Nussbaum in Fronteirs of Justice have asked for a more expansive justice and argued it should include animals, because of their sentience and dignity. This still limits justice to beings capable of sentience – the capacity for feelings and sensations. The research on dolphins’ capabilities for emotional intelligence more than proves this. But many beings in danger of extinction might not fit our definitions of sentience – fungi for example, and plants. Other thinkers have taken justice a step further, placing whole ecosystems as its subject. Humans are displaced as the only subject of justice; we become entangled with the wider question of ecosystem justice, entangled in the relationships we form. Yet, our sense of justice for the wider living world is in its infancy. Only when the situation becomes impossibly dire – the last 55 – do we campaign and consider the impact of our lifestyle and economy on others’ survival. The seaweeds, bottom-crawling shellfish, algae and microbes that we cannot see or interact with are excluded from our focus on the charismatic dolphin. Maybe to conceive of an entire ecosystem extinction, and our obligations to its justice, are too far from our reach.

For the past 18 years in Whaingaroa, a single day has been declared Māui Dolphin Day. Locals race recycled rafts to raise funds to continue restoration in the harbour, making it a better home for Māui Dolphins. This community has never met the one million animal and plant species facing extinction in the world. But they have met Māuis; dolphins, that like Moko, Opo and Jack, are woven into the fabric of place, story and community.

As I look back on my impassioned speech in 2014 to save a dolphin species I’d never seen, my answer as to why I’d bother comes in the form of another question: Who would we be if we did not try to save what was closest to us?

Keep going!