Soul in the Sea director Amy Taylor remembers Moko the dolphin

  • 30/07/2013

Moko the friendly dolphin has swum into New Zealand cinemas this week in Amy Taylor's documentary Soul in the Sea.

The cheeky, fun-loving bottlenose dolphin befriended people on the North Island's east coast after being separated from his own species. Moko made international headlines when he rescued two pygmy sperm whales in 2008, and his death in 2010 broke hearts.

Soul in the Sea is comprised of footage Taylor captured during several months with Moko, and interviews conducted following his death. The film is screening at the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Taylor has a background in marine biology and prior to Soul in the Sea directed a documentary on Hector's Dolphins entitled Beyond the Kelp, which was broadcast on Maori TV.

I caught up with Taylor in Auckland's Civic Theatre to discuss her film and her time with Moko.

What is the message of Soul in the Sea?
I really wanted to just capture what was happening. I also wanted to explain somehow the similarity there is between humans and other beings on this planet, as cheesy as that may sound. I'd like people to have more respect for dolphins and maybe, hopefully, be more inspired to try and help protect them. The situation we have with Maui Dolphins in New Zealand at the moment is critical, we really need to save them. As it's said in the film, once you actually meet a dolphin, you realise they are individuals with individual personalities and realise they're definitely not unthinking creatures. They're not fish, they're mammals and we have a lot in common with them.

Soul in the Sea

Tell me about the first time you met Moko.
I had heard that he'd just moved up to Whakatane and I thought it'd be impossible to find him. I thought finding one dolphin in the huge ocean wasn't going to happen. But when I got there I saw a few people hanging around, so it was pretty obvious he was there. Straight away, he really surprised me. I've done a lot of work with dolphins, I know that they're really interesting and intelligent, but Moko was different. He was special. When I first met him, he came up to me and lifted me out of the water. Then he swam off and came back holding a dead baby hammerhead shark and we played fetch with it. So straight away I could see he was quite a unique character.

What was the most special moment you saw Moko share with someone else?
Watching him push people back to shore was pretty amazing. He did that with me too. He was used to people swimming around him, but one day I was floating around him and he obviously thought something was wrong. So he pushed me up onto the shore and I thought, 'well maybe that was a one-off'. But then I saw him doing it with other people, you can see a bit of it in Soul in the Sea. I think that's really amazing because you can see he's doing it out of concern for that person and making sure they get right up onto land.

And what was the most special moment you had with Moko yourself?
For a long time I didn't put my camera down. I was trying to stay objective and just film everything, but Moko started getting quite annoyed at the camera. So one day I decided to put it down and have a swim with him and after that, he wouldn't really let me take my camera back in. He thought I was much more fun without it! Those first few swims I had with him were the most amazing for me. It was much more fun frolicking around than filming, but I had to keep doing my job. Another time, one night, I was out on a yacht with some friends and about midnight I heard this knocking on the hull. I went up and had a look and here's Moko wanting to play with a boogie board that he'd stolen earlier in the day. So I jumped in the water with him, there was quite a bit of moonlight so I could see him clearly and he started jumping over the top of me. It was just me and Moko out in the sea and it was a bit of a magical experience really.

Soul in the Sea

Dolphins are highly sexual animals. Did Moko ever try anything with a human?
Dolphins are one of the most promiscuous animals on the planet, they definitely do it for fun and not just reproduction. I did get some footage of him getting a bit frisky, but it was actually with the sand. It didn't look very comfortable! I have quite graphic, close-up footage of that but I decided not to put it in the film. He would sometimes have a certain fixation on certain people and follow them around and you could kind of tell that that was what was going on underneath. But he never made the moves and actually tried to physically come on to anyone. I think Moko was getting to that age, starting to become sexually mature and it could've got a little bit tricky, but not from what I saw.

Did Moko seem to enjoy female or male human company more?
A lot of women were attracted to Moko, more so than men. It was almost as if he had a harem at one stage! There was often a big group of women all around him and sometimes if a man tried to enter the water, Moko would get quite aggressive towards him. He's come and start digging at his feet and trying to get him out. He did really seem to enjoy having that little female group. There was a funny t-shirt someone created that said "Moko stole my boogie board... and my wife". It was classic. And I have to say, I for one temporarily took off and left my husband to be with Moko! He had to put up with me leaving for a few months and yeah, I think there were a few men feeling like that.

The DOC guy in the film seems baffled about people "going mental" around dolphins. He says it in a fairly offensive way, but there is a massive appeal in interacting with dolphins for many people. Why do you think that is?
It's just a lot of fun. It's like going back and being a kid again, messing around in the water. But there's a bit more than that to them as well. I guess because you know that they're not like a dog or something, they're not domesticated and just with you because you give them food. There's more of a mystery to them. It's quite hard to explain.

Soul in the Sea

In Soul in the Sea we see Moko knock someone over. Obviously it's playful and not malicious, but did he ever hurt anybody?
Yeah, but never seriously. There a few little bangs and bruises. He'd do it intentionally sometimes when he was frustrated. One time I was trying to get a boogie board off him to give it back to this poor young guy that had lost it to him. I thought at that stage that dolphins are always nice and wouldn't hurt me, but he was being really assertive and just wouldn't let it go, and he came crashing down on my arm. I realised he wasn't going to give in and he was the boss of the situation. I don't think it was aggression it was just dominance and stubbornness. Another time he was messing around with this poor fish that he wasn't going to eat, and I tried to get that off him and he zoomed up and bowled me over. I had a massive bruise on my leg after that one.

DOC did some pretty strange things around Moko, just like the Canadian government did around Luna as shown in documentary The Whale. What do you think officials should do in the case of a whale or dolphin that becomes tame and befriends humans?
I think it is probably a good idea to have designated people involved with dealing with the public. They need to be pretty onto it with getting the education out there. There should be signs up around the places they normally hang out to outline appropriate behaviour and so on. Moko would always go and sleep next to a buoy in the river; I guess just as something to orientate himself with as dolphins normally sleep in pods. A lot of people still tried to hassle him while he was sleeping and that could be dangerous. He could've easily gotten chopped up by a boat propeller or something. So just getting basic information out to people would've helped. I don't think they need to restrict the contact he had with people, but rather explain appropriate ways of interacting with him. Leaving them entirely alone is never the answer because they're just going to keep looking for human interaction. In the case of Luna, that orca became obsessed with boats and ended up getting chopped up by a boat.

Soul in the Sea

It's a tough one isn't it. Leaving them alone is cruel as they need social interaction, but interacting with them can be dangerous for both the marine mammal and the humans it's interacting with.
History has shown that lone, sociable dolphins and whales that have done that end up putting themselves in a lot of danger. I don't think there's any simple answer to it, unfortunately. I think having sensible people involved in their protection on a day-to-day basis is a good idea and that's pretty much all you can do.

In the years to come, how will you remember your time making Soul in the Sea?
Well hopefully I remember the few months that I enjoyed filming than the many painful months of editing! The post-production did get very challenging. But the filming was out-of-this-world; it was like living the dream. Every day I'd get up, go to the beach and find Moko then hang out in the sea all day. It was such a nice environment with lots of happy people around, it was a golden summer. It felt magical - that sounds weird, but it was such an unusual, fun experience.

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Soul in the Sea is playing at the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival.

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