Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sailing Lore and Legends: It's Unlucky to Kill a Porpoise. The story of Pelorus Jack

Sailing history is filled with superstition and lore. It's unlucky to start a cruise on: a Friday (the day Christ was crucified), the first Monday in April (the day Cain slew Abel), the second Monday in August (the day Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed), December 31 (the day Judas Iscariot hanged himself). Black travel bags are unlucky but black cats are good luck and bring sailors home from the sea. Women aboard a ship make the sea angry, but naked women can calm the seas.

My favorite sailing superstition is that porpoises swimming around a ship are a good sign, and it's unlucky to kill one.

Need proof of the veracity of this bit of superstition? Look no further than the story of Pelorus Jack in New Zealand. Jack was the first dolphin to ever be protected by law.

In 1888 a Risso dolphin--a species uncommon to New Zealand waters--came to the attention of sailors on the ship Brindle as they made their way from Wellington to Nelson and back. This trip required a traverse through a dangerous bit of water between NZ's North and South Islands, a narrow channel filled with rocks hiding just beneath the surface, currents of up to 8 knots, and the remains of hundreds of vessels that didn't make it through. Sailors aboard the Brindle spotted the dolphin ahead of them, but it wasn't playing in the ship's wake as they expected. It appeared to be leading them through the channel!

The dolphin met the ship at the mouth of the channel on their return trip, too, and guided them safely back to the harbor. The sailors aboard the Brindle named the dolphin Pelorus Jack.

For 24 years, Pelorus Jack met ships from the entrance of Pelorus Sound and led them to French Pass, then picked them up again as they came out of the pass on their return journey to lead them safely back to the harbor. He was so reliable that many captains refused to go forward until he appeared. Clearly, this dolphin brought luck to all the vessels he brought safely home from their voyage. His reputation and fame grew, and people came from around the world to see him, including Mark Twain!

But, sadly, people are people and it wasn't just those who were amazed and awed that flocked to see the dolphin that seemed intent on helping sailors. In 1904, a passenger aboard a ship named Penguin fired a shot at the dolphin. Jack swam away, leaving a trail of blood in the water. Thankfully, he survived and reappeared two weeks later and proved he was as smart as he seemed: he never again led the Penguin through the channel.

Public outcry over the shooting incident led to passage of a law protecting Pelorus Jack and making it illegal to shoot a dolphin in New Zealand waters.

Pelorus Jack guided his last ship to the channel on April 12, 1912. He disappeared after that, probably dying of old age. New Zealand declared a day of national mourning to honor him, a candy bar was named after him, and songs have been written about this dolphin that brought luck to the sailors and led them safely home.

As the perfect post script to Pelorus Jack's story, five years after the passenger shot at the dolphin, the Penguin sank on the rocks in French Pass. It was the only ship lost in the channel during all the years Jack led ships through.

Closer to home, this past year, the South Carolina legislature refused to pass a law lowering the speed vessels can travel in the Charleston harbor--a law proposed because of an alarming increase in the number of fatal collisions between commercial ships and marine mammals. When a fourth-grade school class submitted a proposal to make the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin the state marine mammal, the legislature refused. One of our illustrious elected officials defended his vote against it by saying, "If we did that, we'd have to lower the vessel speed in the harbor to protect them, and that would be bad for commerce."

Maybe the SC legislature needs to hear about Pelorus Jack, the sailing superstition that it's bad luck to kill a porpoise, and the fate of the Penguin?


The Bathroom Readers' Institute (2007). Uncle John's Under the Slimy Sea. Bathroom Readers' Press, Ashland, OR. 144 pp.

The Encyclopedia of New Zealand at

Hendrickson, Robert (1984). The Ocean Almanac. Doubleday Books, New York, NY. 446 pp.

* Photo of Pelorus Jack downloaded from


  1. Lynne, Thanks for pointing me to your new blog! Love the water background and look forward to reading new posts.

  2. Thanks, Normandie! I'll be updating it weekly for now - that's all I know I can reasonably expect to keep up with! Hope you enjoy it!