Walking through the special exhibition Whales Tohorā, you may be overwhelmed and awestruck by the enormous size and majesty of the South Pacific’s whale species. I certainly am. As I walk around, mouth agape, my eyes are drawn to the largest creatures, and I’m astonished at how weightless and graceful these hulking creatures are in the water, while their bare skeletons are imposing and lumbering-looking on land.

In fact, I had been through the gallery several times before my eyes fell upon the most adorable little specimen. Hector’s dolphin is a small, unassuming little animal—easy to miss, but now that I’ve seen him I am in love. As my daughters would say, “Awww… I want one!”

A mounted skeleton of a Hector's dolphin on display in Whales Tohorā.
The Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori) can be found only in the coastal waters of New Zealand. They must love New Zealand hospitality as much as I do! Image: Jennifer-Lee Mason © Canadian Museum of Nature

This dainty specimen represents a species that is endemic to New Zealand’s coastal waters, and struggling for survival. World Wildlife Fund reports that the population of Hector’s dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori) is roughly 7400. This includes the subspecies Maui’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui), which numbers only 100.

These vulnerable creatures have a solid, barrel-shaped body, with a delicate, shortened snout and softly rounded dorsal fin. They can grow to 1.4 m and weigh up to 50 kg. That is barely bigger than my dog!

Mounted skeleton of a Hector's dolphin and a pygmy right whale on display in Whales Tohorā.
Size is relative. Even though the pygmy right whale (Caperea marginata) on the right is the smallest of the baleen whales (up to 6.5 m), it seems enormous compared to a Hector’s dolphin (up to 1.4 m). Both whales can be seen in the Whales Tohorā exhibition until September 3. Image: Jennifer-Lee Mason © Canadian Museum of Nature

I can barely contain my “awwww” reflex: not only are these animals tiny and sweet looking, but they need protection and saving. Anthropomorphizing goes into overdrive: I imagine myself finding a pod of Hector’s dolphins trapped in a gill net. I swim out (knife clenched between my teeth) to their rescue. Once they are all freed, they are so grateful to me (and petrified to be on their own again) that we all swim back to my house (okay—so I haven’t ironed out all the kinks yet) for tea and squid cakes. They decide to stay and be my pets and my daughters create a circus show for the neighbourhood kids.

You may wonder, as I did, “Why Hector?” Who was Hector, and why is this darling his namesake? Ditto the Hector’s beaked whale in the exhibition. They are named after Sir James Hector, who first found and examined this species in 1869.

Sir James Hector was the curator of Wellington’s Colonial Museum, which is now the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. It’s also where the Whales Tohorā exhibition originates.

And if those coincidences don’t reaffirm how small the world is, let me throw one more detail at you. Many moons ago, when I was a poor student backpacking through New Zealand, chance would have it that I was in Wellington the very day the new Te Papa Tongarewa museum opened for the first time. Seizing the opportunity to be part of such a momentous occasion, I awoke before dawn and celebrated among hundreds of proud New Zealanders all day.

An elaborate archway and visitors in a museum.
Jennifer-Lee Mason sits under an elaborate archway on the opening day of the Te Papa museum in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1998. Image: Jennifer-Lee Mason © Jennifer-Lee Mason

So that confirms it: fate wants me to be with Hector’s dolphins. Whether it be in a in a museum gallery in Ottawa, a museum grand opening in Wellington or… in the beautiful coastal waters of New Zealand, Hector and I will be together.

Learn more about Hector’s dolphins: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/cetaceans/about/hectors_dolphin.