Buzzing after close orca encounter

GERMARI HERSELMAN
Last updated 16:45 28/01/2014

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A man had the experience of a lifetime when he found himself in Pelorus Sound swimming with orcas.

Will Gerard was visiting family in Pelorus Sound for Christmas and decided to take a swim while out on a fishing trip.

While swimming he spotted what he thought were signs of dolphins and had his family pass him his waterproof camera.

"I've always loved filming dolphins following our boat when we're out fishing, but have always wanted to swim with them. When I saw the dorsal fins and realised it was an orca I was so excited I didn't have time to be afraid and get out the water," he said.

"I know you are not supposed to swim with them, but it just happened so quickly and I knew this would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me," Gerard said.

The orcas didn't seem bothered by his presence so he swam slowly after them and another large orca approached him.

"I didn't expect that, there was a calf with the pod and I think the big male came to make sure they were safe."

Associate professor of zoology at the University of Otago Liz Slooten said that it was normal to see pods of orcas at this time of year. "Orcas have a regular beat they follow and could spend up to months in an area before moving further along the coast on their annual route.

"New Zealand orcas are resident to New Zealand and spend their year travelling up and down the coast, so they will most likely be back around the same time next year." 

ORCAS ARE CURIOUS

Conservation services manager in Picton, Roy Grose, said orca whales are curious, intelligent animals, and that he was not surprised the pod swam over to have a look at Gerard.

"While [Gerard] was swimming the orcas came along and interacted with him, which is quite different from a group of people who spot orcas and then go over to them - swimming with whales is not permitted. The general rule is that you should keep at least 50 metres away from whales and up to 200 metres away from any large whales or mother whales with calves."

He said there is no evidence to suggest orcas in the wild would harm humans.

"The only time they’ve been known to harm people is when they’re kept in captivity.

"They are intelligent hunters. They would know the difference between a human and a seal."

The large whale Gerard spotted was most likely the pod’s male leader, Grose said.

"They sit off the pod and are distinguishable by their large dorsal fin, it can be a meter and a half high. A big male orca can get up to 10 metres. It’s quite deceptive, they’re very big animals. Very curious, very intelligent."

More have this week been spotted in Queen Charlotte sounds - Grose said at this time of year there are many reports of orcas in the sounds and even around Wellington Harbour.

"The main activities in these areas are mating, or herding up and taking stingrays out of shallower water [to eat], they’ll cruise around in pods of six or seven, often with calves in tow.

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We don’t encourage people to swim with orcas but of course in Will’s situation the orcas approached him and that’s fine, there’s no problem with that."

If you do want to view orcas:

- Keep at least 50 metres away

- Approach from the side, not from in front of the animal

- Do not cut them off with your boat

- Do not try and herd them with your boat


- The Marlborough Express

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