Samantha is a reporter at the Bay of Plenty Times

Hopes and fears for bottlenose dolphins' return

Recent sightings of bottlenose dolphins in Tauranga Harbour have raised hopes they might make a home here - and fears for their safety if they do.

Marine life kayaker Nathan Pettigrew said he first saw the pod of 20 or 21 dolphins, including calves, in the harbour about two months ago. He later saw a group of six.

Last weekend a group of kayakers were thrilled to come across a pod of 15 in the harbour, sharing footage of the dolphins jumping and swimming around their kayaks.

Mr Pettigrew identified the dolphins as bottlenose from the footage, and was excited to see the pod may still be in the area, though split into multiple groups.

He said going back a decade he used to see them in the harbour two or three times every summer.

"Since then it's been once in a blue moon. Mostly they just didn't come back in."

It was "really exciting" to have them back, but he was concerned about the risks Tauranga's busy harbour might pose to the dolphins.

In other bottlenose dolphin populations around New Zealand, there were issues with dolphins not having enough rest due to people visiting them, boat noise and other stresses. There was also the risk of boat strike.

"I want everyone to see dolphins. I want everyone to have a shot at seeing these magnificent animals. But I want everyone to see them respectfully."

Mr Pettigrew said asked boaties and jet skiers to be vigilant in the harbour and slow down if they saw dolphins nearby or surfing their wake.

People coming across a pod should slow down, give the dolphins space and avoid hanging around too long - especially if the dolphins were sleeping.

"They're like us - they get hungry, tired, pissed off. They need rest. Enjoy, take photos and don't hang around."

He said sleeping dolphins would usually be close together on the surface, moving slowly and possibly going round in circles. They could sleep day or night, for minutes or hours.

Mr Pettigrew said the repeat sightings could be a sign the dolphins might be looking to make a home here, he said.

"We have got a chance to get it right for them."

Tauranga-based Department of Conservation biodiversity ranger Karl McCarthy said the department had received a few reports of bottlenose dolphin sightings over the past six or so weeks.

He said the dolphins needed space to rest, socialise and feed. As the group contained calves the mothers also needed time to nurture and feed their young.

"People constantly seeking out interactions may have negative impacts during these important times," Mr McCarthy said.

Dolphin Blue owner Paul Aitken, who has been operating tour boats in Tauranga for 12 years, said it was his off season so he had not seen the bottlenose dolphins himself recently.

He knew of a pod thought to reside near Whitianga that sometimes made a visit to Tauranga over summer but he had not seen them for two years. The last time an oceanic pod visited was about six years ago, he said.

He said his tours usually did not spend time in the harbour unless orca had been sighted.

Bottlenose dolphins in New Zealand

- Three main coastal populations in NZ: Bay of Islands (450), Fiordland and Marlborough Sounds
- Susceptible to human impacts due to coastal nature
- Short beak and high, hooked dorsal fin
- Dark or light grey on the back grading to white underneath
- Adults grow 1.9 to 3.9m
- Females can live beyond 50, males to 45
- Threats include predators (sharks and orca), and adverse effects of tourism.

Report sightings to 0800 DOCHOT (0800 362 468).

- Source: Department of Conservation

Department of Conservation rules for being on the water with marine mammals. Supplied/Department of Conservation
Department of Conservation rules for being on the water with marine mammals. Supplied/Department of Conservation

- Bay of Plenty Times

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