NZ loses our ‘Kiwi Cousteau’

His passion for conserving New Zealand’s marine ecosystems and his love of whales and dolphins made Wade Doak a conservation icon. Sue Halliwell, former national chair of Project Jonah and friend of Doak reflects on the life of the man who became the kiwi equivalent of Jacques Cousteau.

As New Zealand prepared to open the curtain on Conservation Week, 2019, the final curtain fell for one of its most impactful conservationists.

Wade Doak QSM, writer, researcher, naturalist, cetacean advocate, environmental champion and mentor for many, died on September 12.

But, he wouldn’t want us moping about it. During Conservation Week, he’d be encouraging us to get into nature, go for a dive, book a trip to the Poor Knights Islands, become a Project Jonah marine mammal medic, buy one of his books, or grow awareness of our impact on our vulnerable world and teach others about it through our actions and words. As Wade did.

Indeed, it was through his words that I first got to know him. Almost 30 years ago I read his book, Encounters with Whales and Dolphins, and I would be changed forever.

Wade could toss words together as casually as some toss a salad and have the ingredients fall as an art work. Yet, you also got the feeling each word had been lovingly picked, polished and placed for effect.

Beyond his writing, I was totally captured by his subject matter, although back then I hadn’t even met a cetacean – the collective term for whales and dolphins. A few years later I most certainly had, and would be forging my way up the bush path to Wade’s Ngunguru home as the national chair of Project Jonah, New Zealand’s first and only marine mammal conservation organisation at that time, to ask for his guidance.

First I got a tour of the beautiful eco-home and garden that he and soul mate wife, Jan, had constructed. It was the first sustainable home I had visited and it impressed me, mostly for its demonstration that Wade walked his eco-talk.

Wade felt strongly about marine mammal conservation issues and actively supported many Project Jonah campaigns through his writing, speaking engagements and networks. He threw his weight behind lobbying for legislative change to prevent dolphins being kept in captivity in New Zealand and was a fervent advocate, both here and overseas, of Project Jonah’s ground breaking whale and dolphin stranding education and technology.

He had a particular interest in the potential for interspecies communication, sensing this exists on many levels between humans and cetaceans, and is perhaps the reason so many of us are drawn to them.

He also maintained a strong interest in solo dolphins - those that have left their pods for some reason and often seek human company. He travelled the world to meet and learn from as many as he could.

Famously, Wade and Jan designed a wetsuit with flukes, dorsal fin and uni-flipper tail to wear in their dolphin interactions. Who knows what the dolphins thought, but Wade’s photos and anecdotes indicate the suit was well received by the animals and again permitted close encounters and greater understanding.

While Wade was careful not to compare the intelligence of whales and dolphins with humans he did regard them as “our closest brain neighbours.”

Back in 1992, NZ Geographic asked Wade to describe his most profound dolphin encounter.

“Perhaps it was when we set up a two-way underwater telephone communication system in the water at Whitianga with a dolphin we called Rampal. He responded to our excitement with clicks and noises, even though we were not always in the water with him. That was probably the most abstract level experience. But then there was the dolphin that pointed out a hook in another dolphin’s skin to a diver, asking for help, and another dolphin that led a diver to his lost camera.”

Although marine mammal conservation was our meeting point, I know Wade had fingers in many pies and projects.

Wade pioneered scuba diving in New Zealand with good friend Kelly Tarlton. The pair then used the technology to discover treasure aboard the sunken ship, Elingamite.

The stash of coins they hauled to the surface in 1969 helped Wade finance his passion for conservation and pioneer underwater filming in New Zealand.

In 1992, Wade, Jan and son Brady were the underwater photographers on a Wild South documentary that investigated how fish have evolved over 400 million years on the Northland coast.

And one of Wade’s most far-reaching gifts to the people, environment and marine life of New Zealand was his considerable role in establishing a full marine reserve at his beloved Poor Knights Islands.

We owe him much, with Conservation Week presenting an ideal opportunity to celebrate and perpetuate the legacy of this iconic New Zealander, perhaps by doing what we enjoy in nature then passing our love of it to others.

Personally, I’ll be reading another of Wade’s cetacean books this week and, beyond that, continuing to advocate for marine mammal conservation, although sadly now without Wade’s valued support and guidance.

Kauhoe kau me te aihe, Wade; swim away with the dolphins. We’ll miss you.

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.


Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

With thanks to our partners