How to see the world's rarest dolphin - Maui's Dolphin - in New Zealand

A trip to see the world's rarest dolphin.

North Island New Zealand's Maui's Dolphin is considered by some to be the rarest in the world, with an estimated 55 left in the wild.

A few years ago, with the New Zealand Department of Conservation, I was fortunate to spend a day of encounters with this unique and enigmatic dolphin, one of only a small handful of similar species world wide. 

We already knew roughly where they occur, so the plan was to take a boat from Manakau Harbour, through the harbour entrance then head south along the island's west coast.

There are no tours that are permitted to take you to see Maui's Dolphin. So arriving the day before, we thought, we could at least take a look from shore: Hector's after all, are easy enough to see from seacliffs on South Island. Mauis' were only recently genetically 'split' into a separate 'subspecies'.

Flying into Auckland we had booked a night at Castaways, a hotel and conference centre. It turned out, the rooms were perched very high up on the cliffs (a perfect vantage point), so charged up with Sauvignon Blanc, cheese and biscuits we arrived on a beautiful sunny afternoon. It couldn't have been more perfect.

Below us, people were riding horses on the beach. The Tasman Sea was unseasonally calm and we'd only settled in on the balcony for moments when, scanning through binoculars, I spotted a Maui's just behind the surf, then another ... then another.

While they can be acrobatic, for most of the time, these diminutive cetaceans forage on the muddy seabed using echolocation. They surface irregularly, often in small groups of two or three. The males have a unique dorsal fin, like a big round spatula. There's really nothing else you can confuse them with, though it's mostly on faith we presume they are Maui's, as we couldn't possibly tell them apart from Hector's - the research tells us their distribution is a long way away.

Buoyed by this exciting encounter we headed out the next morning to meet our ride. During the several hours we were out on the water with DoC we recorded 10 groups of Maui's, a total of 20-40 individuals (it's hard to know the minimum or maximum number in each pod, as they each dive in turn). Whatever the final figure, we probably saw half to three quarters of the known world population.

What was particularly exciting is that we got to record their calls. Maui's calls are really high frequency - it's just what you need when foraging through fine silt and mud looking for crabs to eat. So we can't actually hear them. We had a piece of equipment like a bat detector that takes the sound and using a process known as heterodyning, translates this into human hearing range.

We deployed the hydrophones (and underwater microphone) under a buoy that we allowed to drift away from the boat. Engines off and silent, the Maui's Dolphins were inquisitive about what we were doing. They came to inspect the buoy, emitting their sharp clicks - just like a bat - being able to paint a picture of the otherwise invisible underworld they inhabit (play the attached video file to hear it). 

We were lucky to get out on the water with these extremely rare and unusual dolphins but we were also able to find out how to see them without any intrusion whatsoever. They are rare and but perhaps the biggest threat to their survival is the use of gillnets by local fishermen (a practice that still goes on in some cases).

Like many of the world's rare and threatened animals, it's very hard for locals to see them. They aren't always aware of them and encounters with them in the wild can be the moment that changes their perception from an animal 'at risk of extinction' and therefore a lost cause, to something more tangible and worth saving.

I wish more people could have the chance to see these animals in the wild. Perhaps now they will.