As a pilot, Pelorus Jack was the best they ever had, guiding ships past the swirling currents and unseen rocks. Until someone tried to take a potshot at him. Nevertheless, they always suspected there was something fishy about Pelorus Jack.
People called him Pelorus Jack, although he could have been a Jill, for the sex of the dolphin first sighted at the junction of Pelorus Sound and French Pass between North and South Islands, New Zealand, was never determined.
Jack (or Jill) was first seen one morning in 1871 when the schooner Brindle was groping for her way gingerly through the treacherous currents and half-submerged rocks for which French Pass was notorious. Someone noticed a sleek, gray shape bounding through the sea, somersaulting and diving, first on the port side and then on the starboard.
It could have been a young whale and one of the crew ran for a harpoon, intent on taking it. Fortunately for the safety of ships and sailors in the area for many years to come the captain’s wife held him back. Then, as the creature, quickly identified as a Risso’s dolphin, swam ahead, twisting this way and that, the helmsman and the captain realized that they were being guided, as if by a pilot, through French Pass. Then, with a flip of his tail against Brindle’s side, he retraced his course leaving the schooner in safe, calm waters.
Occasionally other ships sighted Pelorus Jack and accepted him as pilot and guide until his fame spread and ships deliberately sought his freely offered services. In the 1880s coastal steamers and larger vessels began using the Pass as a short cut and Pelorus Jack’s appearance was eagerly awaited. Passengers left instructions to be roused when Pelorus Jack was sighted, usually about 5 a.m.
According to one observer “the ship was going more than 14 knots, yet he maintained his position with the utmost ease. Occasionally he changed his position from starboard to port, pausing for a few moments ahead of the ship. Then, dropping back, he would cuddle up lovingly against the side as if he enjoyed feeling her chafe against his body. He remained with the ship about half-an-hour, in plain view of anybody who chose to look over the bows.”
Jack the Skipper
In 1890 Colonel Pitt, New Zealand’s Attorney-General, managed to take a photograph of him and some years later it was used on a special postcard.
Museums wanted to capture him for display in an aquarium, but sailors firmly opposed this. Pelorus Jack was the seaman’s friend and they were determined to safeguard him.
Vigilance certainly was needed as, one morning in 1904, a passenger on a ship named the Penguin, called on deck to see Pelorus Jack, came up with a rifle, took aim and fired. He missed and his rifle was confiscated by a member of the crew.
Whether Pelorus Jack was hurt or not he must have realized that his life had been in danger. More than that, apparently he could distinguish the Penguin from every other ship that sailed through French Pass. He never met that ship again and, as sailors learned that Pelorus Jack had deserted her, many refused to sail on her.
The incident produced one quick response from the New Zealand parliament. In 1904 a special Order in Council was issued in Wellington protecting the ‘fish or mammal of the species commonly known as Risso’s dolphin’ in the area where Pelorus Jack was normally seen.’
Five years later the luck that had so far enabled the Penguin to negotiate the tricky waters of French Pass ran out. She was wrecked with great loss of life in that area in March of 1909.
Despite increasing age — Pelorus Jack had been acting as unpaid pilot for forty years — he could still be relied on to be at his post. Then, about 1912, he was seen less frequently, and to the dismay of sailors all over the world, was reported dead. His body, torn and half eaten by sharks, had been found on the shores of French Pass.
Parliament wanted proof that Pelorus Jack had died and instructed skippers to look out for the world-famous dolphin. A few days later he reappeared, as lively as ever, and sailors the world over rejoiced.
Their delight, however, was short-lived. After April 1912 he was never seen again on his home territory. An authority on dolphins, however, adds one more detail of Pelorus Jack’s life story.
He stated in March of 1966 that three officers on the Terra Nova, the expedition ship in Captain Scott‘s second visit to the Antarctic, had sighted him when they were surveying Admiralty Bay in November 1912.
If they were not mistaken then the story that Pelorus Jack had been killed by Norwegian whalers off Pelorus Sound on April 20, 1912 was untrue.
But, whatever his fate, Pelorus Jack, savior of countless lives and hundreds of ships, holds the oddest place in honor in the annals of maritime history.