Death of Opo the friendly dolphin

9 March 1956

Opononi George or Opo, also known as the ‘gay dolphin’, was a young female bottlenose dolphin which warmed the hearts of thousands of people at Opononi in Hokianga Harbour between June 1955 and March 1956.

That spring and summer the dolphin regularly approached the beach near Opononi wharf to play with locals. Opo’s antics included juggling beach balls and beer bottles on her snout. Newspaper articles and photos attracted thousands of holidaymakers to Opononi.

Concerns for her welfare led to the formation of the Opononi Gay Dolphin Protection Committee. The government responded to calls to protect her with an order in council which took effect at midnight on 8 March 1956. This made it an offence to ‘take or molest any dolphin in Hokianga Harbour’.

The measure did not save Opo. She was found dead the next day, jammed in a crevice between rocks. There were suggestions that she had become stranded while hunting fish – and more sinister accusations that she had been killed by fishermen using gelignite.

The people of Opononi were devastated by her death and buried her above the beach where she had entertained so many. Messages of sympathy poured in from around the country, including from the governor-general. Opo’s life was remembered in song, books and sculpture.