New Zealand dolphin (Hector's and Māui dolphin)

Cephalorhynchus hectori
Other names: 
  • Hector's dolphin & North Island Hector's dolphin
  • Māui dolphin
  • White-headed dolphin
  • New Zealand white front dolphin
  • Little pied dolphin
Maximum length: 
  • Male: 1.40m
  • Female: 1.5m
  • Calf: 0.8m
Maximum weight: 
  • Male: 60kg
  • Female: 57kg
  • Calf: 10kg
  • Small fish
  • Squid
Estimated population: 
IUCN Listing: 
EN (North Island subpopulation listed as CR)
CITES Appendix: 
CMS Appendix: 
Not Listed

Endemic to New Zealand with one of the most restricted ranges of all cetaceans, the New Zealand dolphin has been well studied and is the best known dolphin in the Cephalorhynchus genus. Two sub-species are currently recognised; C.h. hectori, also known as Hector's dolphin, is found off South Island in 3 genetically distinct populations totalling approx. 7,270 individuals, whilst C. h. maui, sometimes called Māui dolphin and numbering approx. 111 individuals, is found off North Island. The indications in 2013 however are that this North Island population has declined to fewer than 55 individuals and its long-term survival is unlikely unless protection is provided in the harbours and in the southern part of its range, as well as for the key corridor across Cook Strait between North and South Islands linking the various populations. Improved protection for the north and west coasts of the South Island would also reduce fragmentation. Continued bycatch in these areas reduces the potential for dolphin movement between populations. The New Zealand dolphin is one of the most endangered cetaceans in the world today.


The New Zealand dolphin is one of the smallest of all dolphins and has a robust, compact body. It has a cone-shaped head, beakless with a blunt snout. One of the most distinctive and recognisable features of this dolphin is the dorsal fin that has a broad base with a rounded tip and a convex trailing edge (some liken it to a 'Mickey Mouse' ear). The flippers are rounded as well whilst the flukes are slightly notched with pointed tips. They have a very striking and complex colouration with the body mostly grey with a black dorsal fin and a triangular black mask across the sides of the face. The mask extends to the flippers, which are also black, and may continue as a stripe down the side as a border between the grey sides and the white belly. There is also a black band extending from the blowhole to above the eye, whilst the area from the blowhole forward to the snout is a paler grey. The throat and chest are white, as is the belly where two fingers of white extend up onto the sides. In males of the sub-species C. h. hectori there is a grey heart-shaped patch around the genital slit. Apart from size, with the North Island population being slightly larger, at this time there are no other morphological differences between the sub-species. There are no similar species sharing the range of the New Zealand dolphin so identification is fairly easy.

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New Zealand dolphins are quite gregarious and are fairly active. Known to spyhop, breach, and lobtail, they are avid bow-riders and can also be curious around slow-moving or stationary boats. Usually found in pods of between 2 and 8 individuals, they are occasionally seen in loose aggregations of up to 50 animals. The New Zealand dolphin feeds on a variety of species of small fish and squid, and are found in shallow coastal waters less than 100m deep and 16km from shore. In the summer they prefer to congregate in shallow, turbid waters whilst in the winter months they are more widely distributed.


In recent years, two protected areas have been established in the waters of New Zealand with the intention of promoting the conservation of the species. However much of their range during the winter months is actually outside of these areas and the effectiveness of these areas are compromised due to the ongoing commercial and recreational gill-netting. The biggest threat is accidental entanglement in gill-nets, and trawl fisheries, as where cause of death is known, over 60% are attributed to bycatch. Other threats include pollution, human disturbance, disease, and habitat degradation. Due to an ongoing and continued decline in population numbers - 74% over 3 generations - the IUCN classifies this species as ‘Endangered'.

Distribution map: