Carcass found believed to be New Zealand's friendly dolphin, Moko

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A teenage bottlenose dolphin that thrilled — and sometimes annoyed — New Zealand swimmers and beach-goers with his boisterous antics is believed to be dead, officials said Thursday.

Rangers found a dolphin carcass Wednesday on a northern beach where the animal nicknamed "Moko" was last seen about two weeks ago, and there are clues that it is him.

"Based on the size, markings and teeth of the carcass, we think that this is Moko," said Jamie Quirk, a Department of Conservation ranger who had worked with Moko since he first turned up on Mahia Peninsula on the east coast in 2007.

The playful solitary dolphin, described as a teenage by officials, became a familiar sight around the beaches of the east coast city of Gisborne, where he swam among beach-goers and stole balls and surfboards.

Not everyone was charmed. Moko was known for pushing surfers out to sea, even leaving one woman stranded on a sea buoy when he stole her surfboard. He also overturned kayakers and water skiers.

Last year a canoeist reportedly whacked Moko with a paddle when the dolphin repeatedly blocked her from reaching the shore.

Quirk said the cause of death was not known, and an autopsy would be done. DNA testing would also be used to determine if the carcass is Moko. Initial photos showed no marks or other suspicious signs.

Conservation Department Area Manager Andrew Baucke said Moko was a wild animal and his death could have been caused by any number of factors. He did not elaborate.

"This is a sad loss. The way that Moko interacted with people really inspired public interest and care for dolphins and marine mammals and their environment," Baucke said. "I'm sure that those who got to see and swim with him will treasure those memories."

Another friendly New Zealand bottlenose dolphin called Opo, who delighted people in the mid-1950s, was found dead in 1956 by locals near the west coast town of Opononi. Officials suspected that she was killed accidentally by fishermen fishing with explosives.