Little Girl Dreams Still Come True: My Swim with Moko the Wild Dolphin

Like many surfer girls my affinity for the ocean and the sport of surfing goes hand in hand with my love for dolphins. In fact it wasn’t so much the graceful beauty of Lisa Anderson shredding through a sweet right-hander, but the allure of these beautiful creatures and my desire to be near them that initially drew me to the sport.

Tucked away are vivid memories of my tiny hands turning the pages of my parents’ giant Jean-Michel Cousteau coffee table book, my hazel green eyes drawn to each photo of the majestic creatures. I daydreamed of being a dolphin trainer, of course, and practiced every time I swam in our backyard pool. I named the mosaic-tiled dolphin at the shallow end of our pool “Sparky” and am embarrassed to admit I talked to him underwater as a little girl and once convinced my friend’s sister he was real. I spent countless sunburned summer afternoons watching Flipper re-runs in my soggy swimsuit and towel. My little girl dream to intimately experience the wonder of this fascinating animal in the wild came true unexpectedly on a recent venture to New Zealand with my husband.

Like many traveling surfers on the North Island, we headed straight for Raglan from Auckland airport after picking up our camper-van that screamed tourist. Sadly, we missed the legendary left due to stormy, blown-out conditions but made the best of our time over cups of flat whites and sweet conversation with our local friends. After spending a few rainy days at some friends’ “bach” in Maricopa, a quaint town off the traveler’s path marked by rugged surf and sheep farms, we headed for the East Cape. A store owner told us on the Mahia Peninsula told us about their local dolphin, Moko, who loved to swim with people. We arrived at Moko’s beach. After twenty minutes of searching for Moko, I finally spotted a dark grey dorsal fin next to the orange buoy.

“I’m going out,” I told my husband.

“I’ve swum with lots of dolphins surfing,” he claimed. “I doubt this one is anything special dolphin,” he joked.

I donned my 4.3 suit and hoodie and grabbed my vintage single fin (Tom Curren’s old Channel Islands board) for the paddle out. A sudden panic swept over me as the possibility that this was just a mean joke the locals play on tourists and Moko was really a fifteen foot Great White. My fear vanished when Moko greeted me with a gentle bump on my board. Our play date had begun. The next hour was like magic. Moko had a fin-full of games and I quickly caught on. We played catch the sea-weed ball, hide and seek, chase the hoodie and tunnel tag. My dream was coming true and I was in pure bliss! I was having my Pocahontas moment with a Bottlenose dolphin – one of God’s most majestic and intriguing creatures.

Moko was a truly remarkable dolphin, though apparently unfit for his pod. On one account moko was seen helping two pygmy sperm whales that were trapped between a sandbar and Mahia beach. A local man who found the whales told his neighbor, Malcolm Smith. Smith and other rescuers tried for an hour and a half to re-float the whales, with no success. Smith was wondering if it would be better to kill the two whales when Moko appeared. Moko approached the pair of distressed whales and led them through a narrow channel to the safety of the sea. Moko has since passed away and I heard that he even went a bit rouge. At one point he wouldn’t let a woman return to the beach after swimming with him. You can read more about Moko, the legendary dolphin here.




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