Image 'Crowd in the water, Opononi', 1956

TLF ID R5113

This is a black-and-white photograph showing a woman and a group of children in the water at Opononi, Hokianga Harbour on the west coast of the far north of New Zealand's North Island. The woman appears to be reaching out her arm near the head of a young bottlenose dolphin known locally as Opo. The dorsal fin and part of the body of the dolphin are visible in the water. The low hills of the Hokianga Harbour can be seen in the background. The photograph was taken in 1956 by Eric Lee-Johnson, and its negative measures 6 cm x 6 cm.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This asset highlights 'Opo the friendly dolphin', a bottlenose dolphin that in the summer of 1955-56 attracted national and international attention - she swam with swimmers and played with children near the small settlement of Opononi, attracting huge crowds on an almost daily basis.
  • It suggests a cultural perspective to Opo's presence - very few local Mäori played with her as some believed she was a taniwha or water monster, a messenger sent by the legendary explorer and discoverer of New Zealand Kupe back to the place from where he departed on his last voyage back to Hawaiki; some even believed she was a reincarnation of Kupe himself.
  • It portrays an animal that moved people from musicians to politicians - Crombie Murdoch's folk song 'Opo the friendly dolphin' was a popular hit in 1956; the government was moved to secure her protection via an Order in Council, the Fisheries (Dolphin Protection) Regulations 1956, which were due to become law at midnight on 8 March and were to protect all dolphins in the Hokianga Harbour.
  • It illustrates a story that captured the hearts of many but ended in tragedy - on the day that the Fisheries (Dolphin Protection) Regulations came into force, Opo did not appear as usual and she was found dead the next day, 9 March; her death was widely suspected to be the result of injuries received from a gelignite blast and opinion was divided as to whether this was an accident because gelignite was sometimes used illegally in fishing, or a deliberate act by local fishermen who felt Opo was feeding off their catch.
  • It shows one part of the Opo story - Opo's death was received with great sadness and an outpouring of grief; the local community gave her a public funeral and buried her next to the Returned Services Association hall where her grave was decked with flowers; later, the sculptor Russell Clark carved the figure of a boy and dolphin in Hinuera stone and donated it to Opononi; the Governor-General, Sir Willoughby Norrie, was also sufficiently moved to telegraph his sympathy to the children of Opononi.
  • It features the work of the prominent painter Eric Lee-Johnson (1908-93), who had moved to Hokianga in 1948 - in the 1950s he became increasingly disillusioned with the New Zealand art scene and turned his attention to photography, producing many photo-essays for the 'Weekly News'; in 1955, he photographed Opo for New Zealand and Australian newspapers, and Maurice Shadbolt made a film about his work in 1956.
  • It highlights the bottlenose dolphin ('Tursiops truncates'), a very social animal that lives near the coast and inshore waters - bottlenose dolphin can grow to around 3.5 m in length and weigh up to 600 kg, although most, including Opo, are smaller; they have streamlined bodies, a rounded head, and distinctive beak, as well as a tall, falcate (sickle-shaped) dorsal fin and broad and slightly pointed flippers.
  • It pictures a popular animal that has a long established tradition in New Zealand society - from the entertainment associated with the common dolphins at the nationally famous Marineland in Napier on the east coast of the North Island to the legendary status afforded Pelorus Jack, a Risso's dolphin ('Grampus griseus') that from 1888 to 1912 used to meet and escort ships travelling between Wellington in the North Island and Nelson in the South Island, playing about the bow and in some accounts rubbing against the plates; he was also protected by Order in Council under the Sea Fisheries Act in 1904 and remained so until his disappearance, possibly the first individual sea creature to be protected in this way by any country.

Other details

  • Author
  • Person: Eric Lee-Johnson
  • Description: Author
  • Contributor
  • Name: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Organization: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Description: Content provider
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  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
  • Description: Data manager
  • Person: Eric Lee-Johnson
  • Description: Author
  • Copyright Holder
  • Name: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Organization: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Publisher
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
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  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
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Learning Resource Type
  • Image
  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements