A pod of dolphins herded swimmers together to protect them from a great white shark off a Northland beach. Four surf lifesavers were swimming 100 metres off Ocean Beach, 36 kilometres southeast of Whangarei, last month when dolphins began circling them and beating the water with their tails. Rob Howes, his 15-year-old daughter Niccy, Karina Cooper and Helen Slade spent the next 40 minutes in the water surrounded by the dolphins before they could swim back to shore. The four – from Whangarei Heads Surf Lifesaving Club – had been on a training swim when the pod of seven dolphins arrived. "They were absolutely steaming in toward us, which is normal. They may surf a few waves or hang around for a while and then they disappear," Mr Howes said. But what happened next astounded the veteran lifeguard. "They started to herd us up. They pushed all four of us together by doing tight circles around us." Mr Howes tried to drift away from the group, but two of the bigger dolphins herded him back. Then he saw why – a three-metre long great white shark was cruising toward the group about two metres below the surface, before it veered away. "I just recoiled. It was only about two metres away from me, the water was crystal clear and it was as clear as the nose on my face." When he saw the shark, Mr Howes realised what the dolphins were doing. "They had corralled us up to protect us." Mr Howes said he kept calm and did not tell the other three swimmers. Miss Cooper said the dolphins' behaviour was really weird. "They just started circling us and banging their tails on the water. It freaked me out." Lifeguard Matt Fleet had been patrolling out from the surf beach in a rescue boat nearby and saw the dolphins' unusual behaviour. He dived out of the boat to join the group and also saw the great white. Mr Fleet said the water had been clear and he had a good view. "Some of the people later on the beach tried to tell me it was just another dolphin but I knew what I saw." Mr Fleet was keen to get out of the water after the sighting, but did not panic. "I just kept looking around to see where it was." The incident happened on October 30, but Mr Howes said he had kept the story to himself till now because he did not want the great white to be hunted. Auckland University marine mammal research scientist Rochelle Constantine said dolphins were normally vigilant in the presence of sharks. The altruistic response of the dolphins was normal, she said. "They like to help the helpless." The slapping of their tails on the water was the dolphins' way of communicating and could have been a grouping function to bring them all together, Dr Constantine said. Ingrid Visser, who has been studying marine mammals for 14 years, said there had been reports from around the world of dolphins protecting swimmers. "They (the dolphins) could have sensed the danger to the swimmers and taken action to protect them," she said. Miss Visser, of Orca Research, said dolphins would attack sharks to protect themselves and their young. I think that is a pretty amazing story...dolphins are the most incredible creatures..