SailGP final race ignored Lyttelton Harbour dolphin sighting

Credit: Original article can be found here

On the water, there was drama.

“How ‘bout this?” the SailGP commentator exclaimed excitedly, after a mistake-ridden final in Lyttelton Harbour/Whakaraupō.

“A little history made in Christchurch as Phil Robertson will steer Canada to their first SailGP victory.”

Now, two months later, the public is learning about drama of another sort.

* SailGP: Peter Burling’s New Zealand team ignore dramas to light-up Lyttelton
* Thousands of fans flock both land and sea in Lyttelton for opening day of SailGP
* Cars to be banned from Lyttelton on SailGP race weekend

The Department of Conservation (DoC) has released details of its investigation into the final SailGP race on March 19, during which organisers ignored instructions to cease racing when dolphins were detected. The race was held in a marine mammal sanctuary.

Two nationally vulnerable Upokohue/Hector’s dolphins, tracked by the event’s observers, moved towards the race area during the final, DoC confirmed yesterday afternoon in an emailed statement.

“At this point, the marine mammal observer coordinator notified the race controller of the presence of dolphins and racing should cease,” says DoC Mahaanui operations manager Andy Thompson in a statement emailed yesterday.

“This was supported by DoC and the mana whenua representative. The race continued, and no dolphins were harmed.”

The question was whether marine mammal protection regulations had been breached – specifically rules about speed and movement that “masters of vessels” must follow when within 300m of marine mammals.

Offences, if established, can attract fines of up to $10,000.

Thompson said DoC, which had staff in the race control room, was unable to establish whether an offence took place.

“We cannot be certain the yachts were within 300m of the dolphins, and there is no evidence to indicate the individual skippers were aware of the presence of the dolphins.”

(Doesn’t logic state the skippers were meant to concentrate on racing, while the job of observers, and the control room, was to alert them if dolphins came too close?)

Team New Zealand race during day two of SailGP New Zealand on Lyttelton Harbour.


Team New Zealand race during day two of SailGP New Zealand on Lyttelton Harbour.

DoC is “following up” further concerns, about the “alleged behaviour of marine mammal spotter boats near Hector’s dolphins”.

Genevieve Robinson, deputy chair of Māui and Hector’s Dolphin Defenders, says: “It’s a bit of a worry to learn that during the investigation a potential breach of the 300m rule couldn’t be proven, but a race win can be calculated down to the nearest foot.”

She adds: “If an offence did occur, or a potential breach under the Act, and it couldn’t be proven, then to me that itself indicates something isn’t working as it should.”

Leading up to the race, dolphin experts and advocates had fundamental concerns about boat racing involving agile, high-speed catamarans, in a dolphin habitat, which is part of the Banks Peninsula marine mammal sanctuary.

And while measures were taken during the event to detect dolphins – including observers on boats, drone surveys, and acoustic detectors – there was still a risk of vessel strike which, experts said, would likely be fatal.

ChristchurchNZ, the city’s economic agency – which is paying millions of dollars for the hosting rights, and signed off SailGP’s marine mammal management plan – confirms it was told about the DoC investigation on April 11.

An estimated 15,000 visitors watched the final on in Lyttelton on Sunday.


An estimated 15,000 visitors watched the final on in Lyttelton on Sunday.

Yesterday’s comments, answering Newsroom’s questions sent on May 9, arrived the day before the Budget, and more than a week after SailGP’s final race, in San Francisco.

SailGP was told of the investigation’s conclusion by DoC on May 10 – the same day Newsroom revealed the existence of the probe.

DoC, ChristchurchNZ, and SailGP sent statements yesterday afternoon. It’s not clear why the public had to wait a week to find out.

“It is very unusual for DoC to publicly notify any investigation into alleged breaches of the law, as that could compromise the success of the investigation,” Thompson says.

“We have a process we follow when carrying out investigations like this and the timing of subsequent rounds of SailGP had no bearing on our decision-making.”

Last year, Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke Rāpaki’s Yvette Couch-Lewis, who chaired an advisory group that guided the creation of the event’s marine mammal management plan, said in a statement: “Ensuring the welfare of the Hector’s dolphins is paramount to the overall success of the event and is a key value.”

Couch-Lewis couldn’t be reached for comment yesterday afternoon.

It’s worth sailing back to last year, when critics of the race accused organisers of favouring dollars over dolphins. Their contention was the promotion of Christchurch to SailGP’s television audience was more important than protecting a vulnerable species in its own habitat.

At the time, event director Karl Budge said comprehensive protocols were in place to mitigate risk to marine wildlife and he expressed confidence in the marine mammal management plan.

The ChristchurchNZ board reviewed and “approved” the plan.

In a statement emailed yesterday, Budge said the “industry-leading” plan worked well throughout the event.

“During race week there were multiple sightings of dolphins and SailGP responded in accordance with the plan.”


Stuff spoke to Lyttelton business owners to get their reaction on one of Christchurch’s busiest weekends.

The training window was adjusted and practices were delayed.

Racing on March 18 was delayed “to ensure dolphins had safely left the race area”.

Budge says two dolphins approached the race area on March 19, near the spectator fleet.

DoC compliance officers, aboard a boat, thought the animals might have been within 300m of the catamarans when they rounded the westernmost marker for the final time, Thompson says.

“The dolphins were continuously monitored by marine mammal observers. Observer vessels remained at all times between the dolphins and the F50s, which were turning away from the dolphins’ location and towards the finish line at the time they were being tracked.”

The event’s marine mammal management plan states: “During all phases of the race event, the principle guiding vessel movements within Whakaraupō/Lyttelton Harbour will be to avoid, as far as practicable, any interaction with marine mammals. Broadly, the control measures are founded on the use of trained observers to identify the presence of mammals and to delay or halt racing to minimise risk.”

Newsroom asked SailGP why organisers ignored the order to halt the race, and how the events of March 19 accorded with the plan.

“An assessment was made at the time, and based on all location data from on-land and on-water surveys, SailGP determined to safely continue racing,” Budge says.

“No dolphins were in any danger at any point within the final race, and there were no incidents between F50s and marine mammals over the course of the entire weekend.”

That may be true, but was the risk to the animals minimised, as outlined in its management plan, developed with input from scientific and cultural experts?

Thousands of spectators watched the race, which was broadcast around the globe. “SailGP is proud to have delivered a safe event with exceptional racing,” Budge says.

ChristchurchNZ general manager for destination and attraction Loren Heaphy said in a statement – again, in answer to questions sent on May 9 – the measures in the marine mammal management plan “contributed to a successful event where no marine mammals were struck or harmed”.

DoC had prepared a media statement to send out if a dolphin had been killed.

“Following the outcome of the DoC investigation under Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978, ChristchurchNZ is now considering the ramifications, if any, for the 2025 event.”

Newsroom asked the agency if it was acceptable for SailGP to continue racing on March 19, potentially putting dolphins at risk. Also, was the management plan followed at all times? No answer was received by publication deadline.

Doubt and uncertainty

DoC’s Thompson, the Mahaanui operations manager, says up until the final race the event’s systems had worked well to protect dolphins. “It was frustrating this incident occurred.”

But how is it, with all the technology employed, aerial TV coverage, and observers, it wasn’t possible for DoC to plot the distance between the last known location of the dolphins and the nearest boats?

“Their approximate location is based on an estimate from the marine mammal observers,” Thompson says, “and therefore [we] cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt whether the yachts were within 300m.”

The management plan says if a marine mammal enters “zone 4” during racing the event director shall “cease racing and instruct all boats to drop off the foils if racing is underway”.

We asked Thompson if the two dolphins sighted on March 19 were in zone 4. There’s some uncertainty, he says, but staff, at the time, believed they were.

“The investigation did not look into this as it is focused on whether any legislation was breached.”

The department will now be reviewing what worked well and what changes are needed to ensure Hector’s dolphins and other native species are kept safe during the next SailGP event in 2025, Thompson says.

He notes the marine mammal management plan was developed by and belongs to the race organisers.

“We will consider the plan as part of our review and provide feedback.”