Death of Opo the friendly dolphin

9 March 1956

Opo the dolphin and admirers, Opononi, 1956 (Te Papa, F.005006/02)

‘Opononi George’ or ‘Opo’ was a young female bottlenose dolphin who 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.

Concerns for her welfare led to the formation of the Opononi Gay Dolphin Protection Committee. The government responded with an order in council on 8 March 1956 that 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. Some people suggested she had become stranded while fishing, others that she had been killed by fishermen using gelignite

Her death devastated the people of Opononi, who 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.