Sea and Ocean Life of New Zealand

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The Maori call the Pacific “Moana-Nui-o-Kiva” ("The Great Ocean of the Blue Sky").

Pig Fish, found off Stewart Island in southern New Zealand, are strange creatures. First of all you can pick them up with you hands when they are wide awake (the only resistance they offer is an occasional grunt) and they can be "planted." Roger Grace, a scientist who has studied them, told National Geographic he was once holding one but needed to use both of his hands. He wasn't sure what to do with the fish so he dug a small hole in the sand and placed the pigfish inside it. The fish didn't move. Grace has planted whole "gardens" of pig fish and only a couple swam off. [Source: "New Zealand's Magic Waters" by David Doubiltet, National Geographic, October 1989]


Right whales migrate to some places off the coast of New Zealand.

Large groups of pilot whales, up to 300 strong, have beached themselves on remote New Zealand beaches. Scientists do not yet understand why this happens.

Since 1985 a New Zealand group called Project Jonah has used inflatable pontoons to rescue more than 2,000 marine animals ranging in size from dolphins to 45-foot Bryde's whales. Beached whales usually die from fatally overheating. To prevent this from happening the animals are rolled over so a mat can be placed underneath. As the tide rises pontoons are attached to the mat and inflated. "The pontoons allow us to float a huge animal in less than a foot of water," one biologist told National Geographic.

Police and commuters were furious when they found a group a killer whales they thought were stranded near Wellington's inter-island ferry were really rubber dorsal fins attached to wooden blocks left as part of an April Fools joke.


Dolphins in the Fiordland area are famous for welcoming ships into the bays and sounds. There are also places where people swim with dolphins. The major species found in New Zealand include dusky dolphins, Hector's dolphins and bottlenose dolphins.

see Dolphins, SEA

Pelorus Jack, the Helpful Dolphin

A dolphin by the name of Pelorus Jack guided boats and entertained tourists for nearly thirty years in Admiralty Bay on the South Island. So popular was he that boats went out of their way to visit him and a special law was passed to protect him.

Sailors came to rely on Jack to navigate the French Pass, a dangerous stretch of water through D'Urville Islands from Pelorus Sound to Tasman Bay. The first ship that Jack helped, the schooner “Brindle”, was on its way from Boston to Sydney, and decided to take the dangerous passage as a short cut. When the dolphin was first spotted some sailors suggested shooting it but the captain's wife reportedly intervened and the ship ended up following the dolphin through French Pass.

The ship arrived safely and the dolphin was nicknamed Pelorus Jack after the sound. For the next 30 year almost every ship that approached the passage was lead by Jack.

In 1903, a drunken passenger on the shop “Penguin” shot and wounded Jack, a deed which nearly got the passenger thrown overboard by a mob. Jack disappeared briefly and then showed up two weeks later apparently unharmed. Even so, Jack never went anywhere near the “Penguin” again and the ship sunk in 1909, killing scores of people. Jack survived another nine years. The last time he was seen was in April, 1912.

Opo, the Friendly Dolphin

An even friendlier dolphin by the name of Opo appeared in 1955. She used play ball with children at Oponomi Beach and let them stroke and ride her. So popular was she that traffic jams were formed by tourists anxious to see her. Aware of what happened to Pelrous Jack, local people erected a sign that read "Welcome to Opononi, but don't try to shoot our Gay Dolphin."

In 1956, Opo failed to appear on the beach and later she was found dead among some rocks. One theory was that she had been killed by fisherman who used explosives to stun fish. The grave where she was buried can still seen today. [Source: Robert Leslie Conly, National Geographic, September 1966]


Hooker's sea lions inhabitant the sandy beaches and cliffsides of the South Island and the subarctic islands off of southern New Zealand. Males reach lengths of 350 centimeters and weigh up to 450 kilograms. Females reach lengths of around 200 centimeters and weigh up to 160 kilograms.

It is estimated that there are between 10,000 and 15,000 Hookers left in the wild. They spend most of their lives near the windswept islands where they were born, abd are sometimes feasted on by Great White Sharks.

Hooker sea lion pups play around in the forests and cliffs of their home islands while their mothers are out at sea. The pups can recognizes the mooing sound of their mothers, who in turn can recognize the bleating sounds made by their young.

Hookers are known for being affectionate. Biologist Martin Cawthorn, who was studying the seals on remote Enderby Island, told National Geographic, "There were no females on shore when I arrived, so I lay down on the grass to observe the males. Soon a lone adult female emerged from the surf, looked around, and headed straight for me. She sniffed along my leg, then snuggled in to the curve of my body and fell asleep. So did I after counting her pulse and breathing rate." [Source: Roger Gentry, National Geographic, April 1987]

In the early 19th century, thousands, perhaps millions of seals were slaughtered. In 1806, a single vessel arriving in Sydney harbor from New Zealand contained 60,000 seal skins,

Today, many seals are lost when they drown in fishing nets. Some 75 females were accidently drowned in a single year.

Giant Squids

An area off the coast of New Zealand is reportedly the best place in the world to find giant squids. Fishermen there periodically pull them up while fishing for deep-sea fish at depths of about a mile. The squids are believed to be there feeding on the dense schools of fish.

Giant squids are one of the world's largest and most mysterious animals. Although no one has ever caught one alive, they have given rise to legends of sea monsters, like the kraken of Norway, stories of sailors being pulled into the sea and elementary school maps with fierce sperm whale and giant squid battles. In Jules Verne's “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (reportedly based on a real life 19th-century encounter between a French warship and a "colossal slimy embryo") a giant squid grabbed a submarine, and more recently one was the villain in a 1991 Peter Benchley novel “The Beast”.

Giant squid are found in all the world's oceans. About 200 specimens have been found, mostly washed ashore. In the past decade or so about 30 specimens have been hauled up in deep water fishing nets. One specimen with a 21½ foot-long body and one tentacle measuring 35 feet long floated into Trinity Bay Newfoundland in 1878. A 57-foot specimen, including a 49 foot tentacle, washed up on Lyall Bay, Cook Strait, New Zealand in 1887. In 1958, a 47-foot-long one was found.

Giant Squid Features

Giant squid can reach 60 feet in length (twice the length of a bus) and weigh up to half a ton. Generally living at depths of 3,000 feet, they have eight short tentacles like other squids as well as a 1½-foot-wide, parrot-like mouth, two long tentacles with sucker-covered clubs and the largest eye (15¾ inches) of any animal in history of the earth.

No one is sure how long giant squids live and nobody knows for sure what depths they live at. They are believed to catch prey by simply unfurling their arms and gathering in prey that passes their way.

Giant Squids and Sperm Whales

According to some estimates a 50-ton sperm whale may eat up to three or four giant squids a day (the stomachs of some dissected sperm whales contains handfuls of giant squid beaks). Whalers that hunted sperm whales until the 1980s reported harpooned sperm whales vomiting up giant squids with tentacles as thick as a man's thigh.

Giant squids are slow, which makes them easy prey for sperm whales, but they are believed to put up some degree of a fight. Sperm whales almost always have scars from the squid's sharp toothed suckers around their mouths.

Studying Giant Squids

Most giant squids found these days are snagged by fishermen towing nets at great depths. In the past fishermen, at best, took a picture or two and then threw the carcass overboard. Specimens that reached scientist were often hacked to pieces.

To get good specimens, scientists in New Zealand have made arrangements with fishermen for them to freeze any squid almost immediately after they are caught.

Scientists who have sampled giant squid say that it has an ammonia taste, which suggest to them that a giant squid can stay afloat without swimming and most likely has a less powerful propulsion system for its size than smaller squids.

Giant Squids and New Zealand

A frozen giant squid transported from New Zealand to New York was partly damaged because the crate it was carried proved to be too heavy for the plane scheduled to take it form Los Angeles to New York (it had to wait for another plane) and had to go through customs twice (once in Los Angeles and again in New York). The transportation cost was US$10,000.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New Zealand Tourism Board, New Zealand Herald, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2023

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