Pelorus Jack

The Legend of Pelorus Jack

Risso's Dolphin

The Legend...

For many years around the turn of the 19th / 20th century, a dolphin named Pelorus Jack guided ships through the French Pass, a channel through the D'Urville Islands off New Zealand. This dangerous channel is so full of rocks, and has such extremely strong currents, that it has been the site of literally hundreds of shipwrecks. But none occurred when Pelorus Jack was at work. There is no telling how many lives he saved.

Map of French Pass, New ZealandHe was first seen by human beings when he appeared in front of a schooner from Boston named Brindle, just as the ship was approaching French Pass. When members of the crew saw the dolphin bobbing up and down in front of the ship, they wanted to kill him - but, fortunately, the captain's wife was able to talk them out of it. To their amazement, the dolphin then proceeded to guide the ship through the narrow channel. And for years thereafter, he safely guided almost every ship that came by. So regular and reliable was the dolphin that when ships reached the entrance to French Pass they would look for him, and if he was not visible, they would wait for him to appear to guide them safely through the treacherous rocks and currents.

On one sad occasion, a drunken passenger aboard a ship named the Penguin took out a gun and shot at Pelorus Jack. The crew was furious, and when they saw Jack swim away with blood pouring from his body they came close to lynching the passenger. The Penguin had to negotiate the channel without Pelorus Jack's help, as did the other ships that came through in the next few weeks. But one day the dolphin reappeared, apparently recovered from his wound. He had evidently forgiven the human species, because he once again proceeded to guide ship after ship through the channel. When the Penguin showed up again, however, the dolphin immediately disappeared.

For a number of years thereafter, Pelorus Jack continued to escort ships through French Pass - but never again the Penguin, and the crew of that ship never saw the dolphin again. Ironically, the Penguin was later wrecked, and a large number of passengers and crew were drowned, as it sailed - unguided - through French Pass.

But Is It True?

Although it's expected that sailors will stretch any sea story to its maximum, there is no doubt that Pelorus Jack was a real sea creature who did accompany ships in Pelorus Sound, New Zealand, and the loss of the Penguin was one of the worst maritime disasters in New Zealand's history.  There are numerous references to Pelorus Jack in literature, and even a photograph.  Our favorite literary reference is in The Venturesome Voyages Of Captain Voss, an excellent book with seamanship advice that still applies today.  A google search on Pelorus Jack will of course tell you more than you ever wanted to know about the dolphin.

A kind reader also emailed us a private journal entry from Mary Ann Lynds Bigelow, who voyaged around the world by ship in the early 1900s.  It reads as follows:

Thursday March 30th, 1910

Cloudy and misty. Left Nelson 10 AM for Wellington by the way of Picton about 12:30 PM. We wended our way to the bow of the Patuna to watch for “Pelorus Jack” at last after watching for half hour we saw him coming through the waves at a rapid pace to meet us and for five minutes, he just raced with us. It did seem as though he tried to do his best to give us a fine opportunity to see him. He is a singular specimen being about 12-14 ft. long of a white color with gray lines or shadings, a round head. He meets the vessels coming and going through the Pelorous Sound. Sometimes he follows for five minutes or rather he proceeds, for he is at the bow of the ship first one side, then the other rubs against the sides, then he only stays a minute and is gone as quickly as he came. He has kept this up for years - occasionally he is gone for a few weeks but not for long.

A Little PJ Music

Phil Garland wrote a song about Pelorus Jack in his 1998 CD A Sense of Place (CD SLC-250). Courtesy of Kiwi Pacific Records International Ltd. P O Box 826, Wellington, New Zealand.