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New Zealand dolphins

A regular feature on many parts of the North and South Island coast, 13 different dolphin species live in the waters around New Zealand.

Dolphins - the fastest swimmers in the sea - are often seen following boats, or playing in shallow waters off beaches.

Common, bottlenose, dusky and Hector’s dolphins like to ride on the bow waves of ships, reaching the same speed for very little effort. Dolphins can maintain 20 - 22 knots per hour for sustained periods.

Killer whales are the largest member of the dolphin family.

Bottlenose dolphins
Bottlenose dolphins are often seen along New Zealand’s east coast, usually in groups of up to 30 animals.

The bottlenose earns its name from the shape of its short beak and lower jaw which looks like a permanent grin. It has a dark grey back, white or pink belly.

Bottlenose males are among the largest dolphins, growing to 3m or more, and weighing up to 300kg. They eat almost any kind of fish, squid and small crustaceans.

Bottlenose dolphins swim at speeds of about 5 - 11k/ph, and can leap up to 5m in the air.

Bottlenose dolphins squeak, whistle and use body language to communicate.

Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins
Only found in New Zealand waters, the Hector’s dolphin is one of the smallest marine dolphins in the world. It grows to no more than 1.5m in length.

Grey with distinctive black and white markings and a round dorsal fin, Hector’s dolphin is the most easily recognised dolphin species.

Two sub-species of Hector’s dolphins exist:

  • South Island Hector’s dolphin - found around the South Island
  • Maui’s dolphin - found off the west coast of the North Island.

With a population of around 100, Maui’s dolphin may be the rarest sub-species of dolphin in the world.

Common dolphins
Frequently seen in New Zealand’s coastal waters in large schools, the streamlined common dolphin often approaches boats to ride in the bow wave.

At speed, common dolphins make long arcing leaps, and perform spectacular spins in the air.

Easily recognised by its crisscross pattern of colours from purplish-black, dark grey, white and creamy tan, the common dolphin has a low sloping head and sharp beak. Large specimens grow to just over 2m in length.

Dusky dolphin
Dusky dolphins are accomplished acrobats, and a popular tourist attraction around Kaikoura, in the South Island.

The dusky dolphin has virtually no beak, a bluish-black back, white underbelly and dark bands across its flanks. It grows to about 2m in length.

Dusky dolphins have been recorded as far south as Campbell Island, but sightings north of East Cape (in the North Island) are rare.

Orca - killer whales
Commonly known as orca, an estimated 150 to 200 killer whales inhabit New Zealand waters.

Orca travel long distances, and sometimes appear in harbours and close to towns or cities.

Growing to around 9m in length, they are sometimes seen doing spectacular tail stands, breaching and slapping their flippers on the water.

Occasional sightings
Several rare dolphin species, which are occasionally seen around New Zealand, include:

  • Fraser’s dolphin
  • Risso’s dolphin
  • rough-toothed dolphin
  • striped dolphin
  • hourglass dolphin
  • spectacled porpoise
  • southern right whale dolphin.

More information:

New Zealand dolphin tales

Winter best time for whale and seal watching


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