We know you’ve already heard… but ka aroha ki te whanau o Moko

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By Isaac Davison and Susannah Goodman | Moko the dolphin, who thrilled and sometimes unsettled swimmers with his playfulness and imposing physical size, has been found dead. The 4-year-old bottlenose dolphin was spotted by surfers washed up on Matakana Island, next to Mount Maunganui.

The body had lain at the spot for two weeks and was blackened by decomposition, making identification difficult. The Department of Conservation removed it by helicopter yesterday afternoon for examination.

But the body was so badly decomposed that the cause of his death may never be known.

Kirsty Carrington, who has spent nearly every day for six months with Moko, said she recognised him by his missing teeth.

She was inconsolable when she spoke to the NZ Herald.

This wasn’t a good place for him. It’s not safe, the vessels, no minders, the fishing nets. He’s been a huge taonga to me, an absolute blessing to this country. It was a beautiful thing to be in the water with him.

Mr Butler told the Herald that Moko had looked “perfectly happy, perfectly healthy”.

The dolphin was first spotted on New Zealand shores by Mahia resident Bill Shortt, as it popped out of the water next to his aluminium boat. Moko quickly became a national attraction, known for his cheeky theft of boogie boards, oars, and paddles. Mr Shortt told the Herald he had feared for the dolphin’s safety when he headed north, away from his minders.

Another Moko minder, Joe Hedley, who named the bottlenose after the Mokotahi headland, said his community was downcast after the news of the death. “I’ve lost a good friend. I spent hours and hours with him, out at sea, me talking to him, him talking back. It’s as bad as a human life gone – he was something different, that’s for sure.”

Moko followed in the line of Pelorus Jack and Opo as solitary dolphins that captured national attention for their willingness to interact with humans. Mr Hedley said he regularly received phone calls from radio and television stations around the world, eager to capture Moko’s story.

In 2008 the dolphin famously assisted with the rescue of an adult pygmy sperm whale and her calf. After many attempts by rescue workers had failed, Moko coached them back out to sea.

After 2 years on the peninsula he moved 80km north to Gisborne’s Waikanae beach and its surrounding waterways. Growing to 3m and 250kg, Moko’s boisterous play and attraction of large crowds led to several incidents.

The dolphin was struck by a canoeist who he had apparently prevented from returning to shore. His mottled body had various pockmarks and scars from his skirmishes.

Moko was also set upon by a group of youths, leading to a warning from DoC to play safely with him. This year the restless dolphin migrated further north. He followed the fishing boat Eskdale around the East Coast, drawn to its brightly coloured orange buoys and, apparently, its loud music.

Mr Shortt had recently expressed concern about the dolphin’s less regular contact.

Department of Conservation officer Katrina Knill said that the cause of death would not be clear until after the post-mortem examination.

Dolphin expert Dr Liz Slooten said the delay of two weeks in removing the carcass would make it difficult to work out how he died.

It is a shame. If it had been found fresh, it would’ve been possible to see if it had any net markings, or unusual wounds.”

At 4 years old, Moko was a juvenile, which meant it was likely he died by accident, as opposed to natural causes.

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