Chasing the New Zealand Mountain Dolphin

It started as a light-hearted investigation. It became a fervour of curiosity and madness in the South Island bush.

I first heard of the beasts in 2021. In a DOC hut near Murchison, I caught a passing comment about a creature known as the Ruahine Mountain Dolphin. “The what?” I asked. My question was met with surprise. I was informed that the New Zealand Mountain Dolphin is a very rare, but very real, creature found in freshwater systems, especially at high altitudes.

As a man of science, I will admit I had my doubts. But when I returned to the real world, a quick Google search turned up ample photos of what looked like a Department of Conservation sign from the Ruahine Range asking visitors to report “any sightings of Kaka, Falcon, Blue Duck or Ruahine Mountain Dolphins” for “conservation purposes”. That was all I needed; if DOC is saying it, it’s gospel. The hunt was on.

The hunt was not going well. It’s difficult to track an aquatic creature through the gnarliest terrain in the country, and I didn’t have the resources to pursue it full-time (the Sierra Club said my grant application was “not a priority”, for some reason). I turned, instead, to the next best way to get information about extremely remote parts of the outdoors: internet forums.

I had assumed the Ruahine Mountain Dolphin would be the only example of its kind, but I was wrong. Reports were circulating throughout online tramping communities of a Tongariro Mountain Dolphin, a Tararua Mountain Dolphin, and others. The species was not confined to a single range, it was nationally present. Incredible. These freshwater marine mammals were apparently thriving. What a win for conservation.

The records go back several years. In 2017, Sam Harrison from the Otago University Tramping Club wrote in a Copland Track summary that, “our first stop after Wānaka was on the shores of Lake Hāwea, to spot the elusive freshwater dolphin, aquais Dolphis. Strangely we saw none.” Two years later, Sarah, from the Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club, posted online that her group had explored the Ruahine Ranges but saw no sign of the creatures. They did, however, blame them for distracting the group’s navigator. The Ruahine Mountain Dolphins had “begun to cause some mayhem” as the group was “too busy dolphin searching” and had lost sight of the hut.

Over on the NZ Hunting and Shooting forums, a user called Shootm was full of advice. In 2020, he’d suggested that “they are pretty elusive, them Ruahine Mountain Dolphins.” At this time of year (February), he said that they like to hide under logs “to beat the heat”. But, come June, “they can be seen breaching in the pools of creeks.” He had some solid words of advice too: “you have to be really quiet with your approach as they spook quite easily. Well that’s the Tamaki anyway, unsure of the other pods.” Finally, an expert.

Then there’s the Instagram account, @mdsnewzealand. That’s the Mountain Dolphin Society of New Zealand, whose goal is to “bring an awareness to this notorious creature.” They’ve posted just nine times, in a flurry of activity between June 19 and July 12, 2018. Then, nothing. Quite mysterious. 

The photos are all in the Ruahine, Tararua or Tongariro areas, and they show a number of the regions’ classic, though distinctly dolphin-free, vistas. But then! Lo and behold, the first photo posted by this account shows what is clearly a dolphin in a New Zealand stream. This was a major breakthrough, and I was thrilled but sceptical, much like I felt after being asked on my first date. Surely this was a joke, a photoshopped image too good to be true. I tried to contact the page, but never heard back (again, much like my first date).

A “DOC” sign referencing the Ruahine Mountain Dolphin. Seems legit. PHOTO: Supplied

At an impasse, I decided I was going to need some help if was ever going to locate the elusive cetacean and capture it on film. I began wondering who would be foolish enough to traverse the entire country in pursuit of an intangible goal, and then I remembered I had a mate who has walked the 3000-kilometre Te Araroa Trail for charity. I figured that was pretty much the same thing, so I reached out.

After berating me for winding him up again with “this dolphin nonsense”, he conceded that he had, in fact, seen a few hut book entries referencing the creatures. He’d never come across anything further, but he pointed me towards Ben Piggot, who may have more to say. Ben’s a bit of a hut-bagging legend, having signed his name in hundreds of hut books, with a goal of ticking off every last one of them. He’s also a strong supporter of the Mountain Dolphin conservation movement. And he had his name in National Geographic once, so I didn’t feel the need to fact-check anything he said. Ben insisted that these creatures are very real, and very special, and while he couldn’t tell me exactly where to find one, he wished me good luck in my quest. I told him he’d be the first to know if I had any success, and went back to square one.

And that brings us to the present day, nearly three years since starting my search. Chasing this cryptid had cost me my sanity and at least the $142.68 I spent on petrol taking a fruitless side trip to Fiordland. Then, like a breaching whale, came a massive breakthrough.

The Reddit post, by user teweheka on r/queenstown, featured what was clearly a photo of a genuine dolphin skeleton, decomposing, apparently, somewhere in Kingston. It was date-stamped 23/10/2023. Two weeks ago, at the time of writing. As luck would have it, I was driving through Kingston in just a few days. The stars had aligned.

Before heading off, I consulted with Marcus Richards, Palaeontology Curator at the University of Otago, who told me he couldn’t be sure of anything beyond the fact that “that is certainly a dolphin.” He told me to come back if I had any luck finding it. In a 2015 research article, he said, authors had speculated how the skeleton of a deep-diving whale ended up 740 kilometres inland in West Turkana, Kenya. “Strange things do happen,” he said, with the air of someone who knows too much.

Teweheka didn’t specify exactly where this skeleton was, but Kingston, a township with about 300 residents set at the foot of Lake Wakatipu, is a small place. I noticed a fence in the background of the image and tried to Google-Maps-sleuth myself into a more specific area, but found the satellite coverage of Kingston a bit lacking. So I stopped, instead, at an information booth in nearby Frankton, where I showed a lady the photo and asked if she knew anything about the Kingston Dolphin. 

I was immediately rebuked; it was absurd, ridiculous, photoshopped, “an April Fools’ joke, lovely”. Then she asked if I “had ever heard of the Department of Conservation?” Now I had a vendetta. Yes, I had most certainly heard of DOC. No, the photo most certainly was not photoshopped. I was going to find that bloody dolphin.

That Kingston Dolphin. PHOTO: Fox Meyer

Kingston’s beach is stony, long, and windswept. Scraggly grasses and gorse dot the shoreline, meaning that in the 20 minutes I had (while our bus stopped for lunch), I had to move quickly. I scanned the shore with my binoculars, very aware that I probably looked like I was peering through the windows of whoever’s bach faced the beach.

I had just about given up hope when two ladies came strolling down the asphalt. I figured this was my last chance. “Hey, sorry, weird question, but do either of you know if anyone here has, erm, an entire dolphin skeleton in their backyard, or something?” “Oh!” they exclaimed, “yes! In fact, we’ve just been to see it. It’s right down there by the shore.” And they pointed me to glory.

I was elated. It wasn’t hard to get the bus driver to take a detour, and the entire busload of my fellow sustainability-conference-goers unloaded to go check out the skeleton which ̶   I can assure you ̶   was NOT photoshopped. She sat there, suspiciously splayed alongside three television-watching penguin cutouts, basking in the Kingston sun. Her tail was missing, as were her flippers, but her vertebrae were still linked in many places and tufts of grass were sprouting from beneath her ribcage.

How did she get here? Perhaps, as one group member suggested, she swam up the Clutha River as a baby and was surprised to find a massive dam in her way when it came time to return to the ocean. Perhaps it was aliens. Perhaps it was just some bloke that found a dolphin skeleton on the coast somewhere and thought it would be crackup to leave it on the Kingston beach, fuelling a cetaceous conspiracy theory for years to come.

Or maybe Mountain Dolphins are the real deal. After all, that is the simplest explanation.

Elated, I returned to Marcus. I met him in the University of Otago’s Geology Museum, with its vaulted ceilings and musty aroma of instant coffee and dusty papers. When I showed him the photos he leaned back in his chair with a good laugh, and remarked that while the grass growth means it’s been there “maybe just a few years”, the lichen and moss on the skull suggests that it’s been out “for much longer… maybe in someone’s yard?” 

Things were wrapping up, and Marcus decided this was “possibly a bottlenose dolphin”, judging by the “fairly stocky” teeth. The seafaring mammal probably didn’t get there on its own, with ribs splayed out like that, amongst other clues. As we were concluding, I mentioned that the background to this article was chasing down the myth of the New Zealand Mountain Dolphin; at this, Marcus raised an eyebrow. The eyebrow of a man with more to share.

“Did I ever tell you that we used to wind up the internationals on Tramping Club trips with this?” he asked, carefully. Turns out, back in 2017, Marcus and his friends had a bright idea for a ruse. With the steady stream of international students coming through the uni’s tramping club in mind, Marcus and his co-leaders started telling folks to keep an eye out for the lake dolphins, going so far as to send photoshopped images to group chats and staging faux sightings in the bush (the dolphin would always duck out of sight before the other trampers could turn their heads).

Marcus had never heard of the North Island varieties of dolphin, so “it’s possible that this is convergent evolution, or people having the same idea all at once.” He admitted that very few local students fell for the hoax, but that “Americans in particular would get all excited about trying to find one.”

While I bit my tongue, he twirled in his office chair. “I wonder if we started it,” he mused. I don’t know if he started it, or where it started. All I know is that the legend has spread far and wide, and that it ends on a stony beach at the end of Lake Wakatipu. 

 Fox Meyer