The Truth About the Legend of Pelorus Jack
Cook Strait, located between the north and south islands of New Zealand, is within the zone of the Roaring Forties which consists of strong winds that sweep across the southern hemisphere from the west. The winds themselves are funneled through a gap in the two islands. On top of this, cool currents from Canterbury travel north up the coast of the South Island while the warmer D’Urville current travels south to meet it, contributing to the occasionally turbulent waters. (You can see an example of this here and here.) In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this stretch of water wreaked havoc for many ships, including resulting in the two worst sea catastrophes of New Zealand’s history: the 1909 demise of the SS Penguin and the sinking of the Wahine ferry in 1968.
However, in 1888, a Risso’s dolphin that later became known as Pelorus Jack came on the scene. It has since been widely reported that for the next two to three decades, Jack safely guided countless ships through a narrow and particularly dangerous region of the strait between D’Urville Island and the South Island. So did this actually happen?
In part yes and in part, it seems from eye-witness accounts, no. There was indeed a Risso’s dolphin named Pelorus Jack who became world-famous for his (note: Jack’s sex was actually never determined) propensity to swim along with most ships that traveled through this region of the strait, day or night. But while nearly every single modern source I can find states that Jack actually guided the ships through a part of the strait, purportedly saving many from wrecking, and even that many captains refused to traverse the waters until the dolphin would appear, the many dozens of eye-witness accounts I read through do not back up this part of Jack’s legend, though a few contemporary accounts do report unsubstantiated rumors that Jack guided ships.
But as for sailors and other people who actually saw the dolphin in action, they don’t mention any guiding and instead describe Jack exhibiting pretty typical dolphin behavior around the ships- seemingly having a good time playing in the waves the boats were stirring up. (Risso’s dolphins are known for not only commonly surfing in the bow waves of ships, but even those created by gray whales.)
As for one eye-witness account of Jack’s actual behavior, the journalist in question traveled to New Zealand specifically to see if Pelorus Jack actually existed, noting in The Stranded Magazine in 1906,
I leaned over and watched him carefully. He appeared to me to pivot himself on his tail, which seemed close to our stem, while his head and body, almost upright in the water, darted from side to side of our rushing cutwater. Then he dived under our keel, then shot ahead again, and turning a complete somersault treated us to what I can only describe as a display of marine hurdle racing, with a circus exhibition thrown in.
Contrary to what is generally reported today, Jack didn’t usually stick with any given ship through the entire stretch of the strait he called his home, particularly when a new ship would appear. Again, as reported in the 1906 The Stranded Magazine:
Occasionally, when in a particularly friendly mood, he follows a steamer for a considerable distance, sometimes for half an hour; at other times, possibly when he has pressing business on hand, he only stays a few minutes… Sometimes when he is playing with one steamer another comes opportunely from the opposite direction, and as they pass the fish transfers his attentions to the new-comer and accompanies her home.
In another account reported in the July of 1911 edition of The Rudder, in an article titled A Wonder of the World – Pelorus Jack, it states,
Should the steamer stop to take fish for the Wellington market from an intercepting oil launch, as her speed slackens Jack leaves her, exhibiting his impatience by occasionally leaping out of the water a few cable lengths away until the propeller revolves again and the vessel gathers way, when he immediately resumes his gamboling at the bows… one moment darting ahead, the next fathoms deep like a gray phantom, close up under the starboard bow, diving under the keel to port, swimming quietly ahead; quickly as thought back in the curve of the bows, rolling over joyously darting ahead and leaping bodily out of the water…
The first report I could find that directly implied that Jack may have actually been leading ships, rather than just reporting it as a rumor the journalist in question had heard, didn’t occur until five years after Jack disappeared, mentioned in the July of 1917 The Mid-Pacific Magazine where it states, “If ‘Jack’ is busy taking in one ship (according to my [Globe Trotting] friend) other ships have to wait until he returns for them…”
As to when exactly Jack first appeared, this isn’t known today, and contemporary sources are of little help, varying significantly on this point when they bother to mention a specific date at all. A popular story is that Jack first appeared to a schooner named Brindle. Upon seeing the marine mammal splashing alongside their boat, the crew supposedly attempted to shoot the dolphin, but the captain’s wife is said to have intervened and prevented the murder of the animal. It is then generally reported that Pelorus Jack proceeded to guide Brindle through the treacherous waters and delivered them safely on the other side- a hero was born. But as with much of the legend that has sprung up around Jack, this oft-repeated story’s veracity is questionable.
So what do we know definitively about Pelorus Jack and why did the dolphin become world famous? Between around 1888 and 1912, whenever a marine vessel appeared to navigate from Pelorus Sound to French Pass, Pelorus Jack would swim alongside the craft for a few minutes as previously described. This is nothing special in and of itself- dolphins do this all the time. What made Jack somewhat unique was his consistency in doing so. As a deck officer told the journalist in The Stranded Magazine article, “I’ve seen him every trip I’ve made except one, and I think we missed him that time by not looking soon enough- he doesn’t always come out at the same place.”
As to why Jack was so fond of doing this, it’s speculated that he was simply either lonely, bored, or both. You see, only 12 total Risso’s dolphins have ever been confirmed to have been spotted in the area around the strait, though Risso’s dolphins can be found worldwide around most major land masses. They typically travel in groups of around 10-50 dolphins with extreme cases of as many as 400 traveling together having been observed. But as for Jack, during his entire documented time in the strait, he appears to have been completely alone for whatever reason.
The June of 1910 edition of The Scrap Book perhaps sheds a little light on the subject, noting, “It is said that a school of fish similar to Pelorus Jack was first noticed in Pelorus Sound half a century ago, and that Jack is the only survivor.”
Risso’s dolphins are extremely intelligent and social animals, so, lacking those of his own kind to hang around with, when Jack wasn’t sleeping or eating, he seemingly chose to pass his time by having fun with the numerous ships that traveled the strait.
And while dolphins do need approximately eight hours of sleep per day, just like humans, they don’t actually ever go into a full sleep state, in terms of becoming completely unconscious. They can’t do this, in fact, because they don’t breathe automatically, meaning to become fully unconscious under water would mean their death.
How dolphins handle this is to essentially put one hemisphere of their brain to sleep at a time, while the other is still functioning as it would when conscious. They then alternate which side of their brain is sleeping periodically. Doing this for about eight hours per day, usually sporadically, rather than eight straight hours like a human, allows them to be conscious enough to remain aware of their environment and periodically swim to the surface for air, while still giving their brain the rest it needs.
Thus, Jack’s widely reported consistency in making an appearance alongside just about every ship that passed through the section of the strait he called home, at least for a few minutes at a time, may well have been helped by the fact that he was always aware when ships were around, and could wake up and go hop around in their bow waves for a bit, if he chose.
All that said, it is widely reported that there was one ship Jack would never appear near, at least not after an incident in 1904- the SS Penguin, which as previously mentioned met its watery grave in the strait in one of the deadliest maritime disasters in New Zealand history.
The story goes that in 1904 a drunken sailor aboard the Penguin shot and wounded Jack. The beloved animal managed to escape, but he disappeared for a few weeks, before reappearing bearing a scar from the encounter. After the incident, the story continues that Jack never again guided the Penguin through the strait, resulting in the ship’s demise on February 12, 1909.
On that day, the Penguin started its journey in fair weather, but by the time night fell, the weather worsened and landmarks disappeared from sight, making navigation extremely difficult. To get around the problem, Captain Francis Naylor decided to head out to deeper waters to wait for the conditions to improve, only to run into Thoms Rock when he made the attempt. As per tradition, women and children were loaded into the lifeboats first, but this proved to be of little help to them. Once the first boats hit the water, the rough waters caused them to capsize, ultimately resulting in the deaths of most of the passengers. The youngest survivor, teenager Ellis Matthews, was saved by the heroic efforts of Ada Hannam, the sole female survivor and a woman who lost her husband and four children in the shipwreck. The remaining 30 of the over 100 original passengers spent hours being buffeted around in the storm before they finally arrived safely on shore. As for the Penguin itself, the flooding of the engine room resulted in an explosion, leaving the remains of the boat to sink to the bottom of the sea.
The story thus goes that had the sailor in question not shot at Pelorus Jack some five years before, the dolphin would have guided the ship safely that night.
So is any of this true? Well, first of, yes, the SS Penguin really did tragically wreck in 1909 and the events of the wreck are as we described. But as we have no contemporary eye-witness accounts ever actually describing Jack leading any ship, nor any captain even remotely implying he chose to follow the dolphin over his own charts and navigation equipment, we can safely say that whether Pelorus Jack really avoided the Penguin or not, the events of that tragic night wouldn’t have changed either way.
But what about Jack getting shot by someone aboard the Penguin- did that really happen? We do know definitively that Jack really was injured around 1904 and disappeared for a while after, leading many to believe he’d died or moved on. We know this because as a result of his disappearance and subsequent reappearance bearing a scar, and rumors about how he got it swirling, a law was adopted by the Order in Council under the Sea Fisheries Act on September 26, 1904 to prevent attempts at Pelorus Jack’s life, perhaps the first wild marine animal protected by law in any country.
As to whether it was really a sailor aboard the SS Penguin that injured Jack, this isn’t clear. Contemporary accounts differ on how Jack was injured, though a common theme among many of them revolves around some incident with the Penguin. For instance, the November of 1908 edition of the Chamber’s Journal references the Penguin with regards to the injury, but doesn’t mention any sailor shooting at the animal:
It is related that he received a nasty bump while disporting himself round the steamship Penguin, and bears the scar of the encounter to this day. This hurt his dignity as it pained his side, and left an indelible resentment which Jack revenges by cutting the Penguin’s acquaintance and wiping her from his visiting-list.
In Volume 4 of the 1904 The Leisure Hour magazine, it contrarily explains, “With the indestructible instinct of the Englishman to ‘go out and kill something,’ one of the returned troopers from the South African War, either actually attempted or suggested attempting to shoot Pelorus Jack.” It does not, however, mention anything about the Penguin specifically.
In yet another account in the aforementioned July of 1906 edition of The Stranded Magazine, it notes,
He is said to have his likes and dislikes; he pays no attention to sailing-vessels or oil-launches; and one steamer from which a ruffian threw a harpoon at him years ago he avoids with uncanny intelligence. On the other hand, the SS Wainui is the special favourite.
It is also said that the SS Penguin bumped roughly against him lately, inflicting a severe gash. Pelorus Jack disappeared for a week or two, and when he resumed his duties he left the Penguin severely alone.
So whether from a nasty “bump” against the Penguin or some other ship’s perhaps barnacled hull, or if someone really did shoot at the dolphin, isn’t clear. Given the intelligence of many dolphins, it is not unlikely that if someone from one of the ships really did take a shot at him, he may well really have avoided that ship, and ships that looked like it, from then on.
Whatever the case, for nearly a decade after the injury, Pelorus Jack continued happily romping around ships going through the strait, becoming world famous in the process, and something of a tourist attraction. The likes of Mark Twain and English author Frank T. Bullen were among those who visited New Zealand to see Pelorus Jack in action firsthand.
Beyond this, postcards featured Pelorus Jack began making their rounds. The Interislander ferry service used his silhouette for their logo and a Scottish Country dance was even designed with him in mind. That’s not to mention he got his own chocolate bar named after him and several songs were written in his honor through the years.
In all, Pelorus Jack spent approximately two to three decades (contemporary accounts differ on this point) swimming beside ships traveling through the treacherous waters and inlets of a section of Cook Strait. However, in April of 1912, Jack mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again. We can only assume his final words were, “So long and thanks for all the fish!” (Or squid, in this case, as that is the preferred fare of Risso’s dolphins.)
So what happened to Pelorus Jack? Considering Risso’s dolphins typically live between 20 to 40 years and Jack was at minimum in his mid-twenties when he disappeared, it is possible he died of natural causes, especially considering his appearance resembled that of an older dolphin towards the tail end of his time in the strait. It’s also been speculated that some whaler or other may have done him in, and there are even several varying accounts of people claiming to have witnessed his demise.
Whatever really happened, in the century since his last appearance, Pelorus Jack’s legend has grown and he continues to be remembered fondly by New Zealanders, whether he really ever guided any ships through the dangerous waters or not.
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