Class 12 Reading Comprehension Chapter 5 The Story of Pelorus Jack

The Story of Pelorus Jack

Dolphins are sea mammals which live in water and closely resemble fish in appearance. They belong to the same family as the whale and the porpoise, and when fully grown, measure from eight to twelve feet long Like the whales and porpoises, they enjoy the company of their own kind and are usually found in “schools”.

Perhaps one of the strangest tales from “Down Under” i the story of a dolphin who made himself the pilot of certain ships, which voyaged through the channel between the North Island and South Island of New Zealand. If you were to hear the story from the native Maoris or yarn-spinning sailors, you would at once think that it was far-fetched of pure invention and that no such creature ever lived, but actually, most of the story would be quite true.

The coast of the South Island of New Zealand is dotted with numerous rocky islands and reefs having channels with swift-flowing treacherous currents. This makes a voyage into these parts extremely dangerous, especially for any vessel unfamiliar with the safe and Consult the map on the opposite page and proper you will course see that the stretch of water between D’Urville Island and South Island is named French Pass, and to the right of it, there is a narrow channel, known as Pelorus Sound. As it was in this strait that the wonderful fish-like creature of our story performed his good deeds, he was called “Pelorus Jack”.

When Jack made his first recorded appearance in 1871, only casual interest was taken in him. Some years later, when coastal steamers began almost daily to thread their way through French Pass, a purser onboard one of these regular trading vessels noticed and remarked on the strange fact that the creature was actually guiding the ship through one of the most dangerous stretches of water in that region. Jack kept in front of the vessel and chose a safe course, well clear of the shallows and the many hidden reefs. The officer drew the attention of captains of other ships to the creature’s regular habits, and gradually a halo of romance and superstition grew up around Pelorus Jack.

Day and night, year in year out, Jack was at his post, and as you may imagine, the sailors discussed with great interest the actions of their strange friend. Some seamen, curious to know how long he had been performing this duty, questioned the Maoris. The natives stated that Pelorus Jack had been guiding their own large canoes for a long, long time. One old tribal chief recounted many stories in support of this, and declared that Jack had been known to his people, even in his father’s youth. From his accounts too, it appeared that Jack and many of his kind had made their home in this channel, but they had all gradually disappeared until only he was left. Naturally, these answers puzzled the sailors more than ever, so they decided to keep a careful watch on their self-appointed guide, and this was what they discovered.

Pelorus Jack was shy of new steamers, and showed himself with freedom only to familiar ships, and he completely ignored sailing vessels. This latter point is peculiar, as fishes and sea-mammals approach ships under sail, with much more confidence than they would steamers. (The reason is that the creatures are scared by the noise and sight of the threshing propellers.) When a ship came near Jack’s route, every passenger and every available member of the crew would eagerly scan the water, waiting for him to appear, as he had become almost as much of a mark as a lighthouse.

Suddenly, from some unknown hiding place, would appear a white streak in the blue sea and gamboling and leaping with every suggestion of joy, Jack would flash up to the bow of the ship, swerve and shoot ahead – his pilot-work had begun. For several miles he would lead the vessel safely on its course, until he reached the open waters of French Pass. Here his duty ended and Jack returned to his home to await another steamer, so that he could guide her through the same perilous channel.

Passengers were fascinated by their strange escort, and many of them made special trips just to see him. Pelorus Jack soon became the chief topic of conversation was that he seafaring men, and his unique performance gave rise to much argument and debate. One suggestion followed the vessels in order to obtain any food which might be thrown to him. Against this, however, eyewitnesses declared that he did not stop or feed while undertaking his self-imposed task. 

The most puzzling question of all, and the one which led to the greatest disputes, was, “What kind of creature is Pelorus Jack?” Some said he was a shark, some ated that he looked more like a large dugong (a sea mammal which is supposed to be the origin of mermaid stories), while others maintained that he was a dolphin. Several snapshots were obtained and after careful examination it was finally decided that Pelorus Jack was a dolphin – a special type of dolphin known as Risso’s Dolphin. Here is a description by one who had seen and photographed him at close quarters:

“His color is bluish-white, tinged with purple and yellow, and he has many irregular scars and scratches running in all directions. From his size and appearance, I am certain that Pelorus Jack is a dolphin.” Further proof was that dolphins feed on shellfish and cuttlefish and the marks on Jack’s skin were said to be caused by the suckers of the cuttlefish.

It was not surprising that sailors and passengers route had a great affection for their pilot friend and took great pride in his helpful friendliness. Nobody fully realized how much Jack was liked, until one day something happened, which nearly cost him his life.

Early one morning a vessel was about to enter Pelorus Sound and as usual, the deck of the ship was lined with people awaiting the appearance of the now famous dolphin. Sure enough, he appeared as if by magic and the passengers shouted with delight as Jack made his usual inspection, and then dashed off in front to act as guide. Suddenly, while the engrossed spectators were watching every movement he made, a pistol shot rang out and it was seen that Jack had been seriously hit. Consternation and anger seized the onlookers when they saw him flash away and disappear. The foolish culprit was told, in no uncertain terms, what the rest of the passengers thought of his treacherous deed and for the rest of the voyage, he was deservedly “sent to Coventry”.

There was a very strange sequel to this shooting incident. It was said that Pelorus Jack had been shot at from the deck of the steamship Penguin and that he never again met or guided this ship. Many seamen refused to sail in the vessel because of the dolphin’s behavior and, peculiar to relate, the steamer was wrecked during a storm in Cook Strait in 1909.

The cowardly act of firing at Jack did not deter other stupid and brutal tourists from trying to shoot him and so, to safeguard his life from similar attempts, a special law was passed by the Government of New Zealand. This Order in Council “protected Pelorus Jack and all his genus in the waters of Cook Strait or in the bays, sounds and estuaries adjacent thereto.” An offense against this order was punishable by a fine of £100.

Jack’s career, however, was not without further accident, as his friends could not guard him against the thousand and one risks of sea life. On one occasion he was struck by the bow of a steamer and this caused him to be absent from his beat. Month after month passed with no sign of the famous dolphin and his disappearance caused some his many friends. Then, when everyone had given up hope of ever seeing him again, there came, one day, an excited yell from the lookout of a passing ship. anxiety among “Pelorus Jack!” he shouted. “Pelorus Jack is back!”

The cry was quickly taken up and the passengers rushed to the deck-rail to view and welcome their favorite. There was Jack dashing towards them at full speed, leaving a foamy wake behind him and ready and eager to resume his friendly mission. Needless to say, everyone was delighted at his reappearance and the good news spread like wildfire. The utmost care was taken to prevent further injury to this gallant and helpful creature and he continued to guide ships in the sound as was his custom.

In 1912 Jack was again missed and when the body of a dolphin was discovered on a beach in Cook Strait, it was found to be none other than the mariner’s guide and friend. Apparently he had been struck and fatally injured by the blade of a ship’s propeller. The maritime world was grieved at the death of its mascot and mourned the loss of a true friend. It is a pity that Pelorus Jack was not preserved in a museum, as there could hardly be any creature of greater interest in natural history than the dolphin who performed so many good deeds and was specially protected by law.


Questions on the Story

  1. What kind of creature is a dolphin?
  2. Name two other members of the same family.
  3. Near which country did the story take place?
  4. Who were the natives of this country?
  5. Why was the creature called Pelorus Jack?
  6. When did he make his first recorded appearance? 
  7. How did he introduce himself before beginning his pilot work?
  8. What did Pelorus Jack do when he reached the end of the dangerous channel?
  9. What excuse did some people make for his interest in passing vessels?
  10. Which kind of ships did Pelorus Jack completely ignore?
  11. Why was this peculiar?
  12. What question led to much argument among seafaring men?
  13. How was it proved that Pelorus Jack was a dolphin? 
  14. What did a foolish passenger of a passing vessel try to do?
  15. How did the rest of the passengers show their disapproval?
  16. What was done to safeguard the life of Pelorus Jack?
  17. What injury caused him to be absent from his beat for several months?
  18. In what year did he die?
  19. What mishap caused his death?
  20. Where was his body found?


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