Orca encounter unnerves Wellington triathlete

KIRAN CHUG
Last updated 05:00 09/03/2011
Triathlete Nicole Walker
EMMA ALLEN/Dominion Post
'FREAKED OUT': Triathlete Nicole Walker was shaken after having a close encounter with an orca while swimming in Oriental Bay on Monday.

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Triathlete Nicole Walker has always felt uneasy swimming in the ocean, but it was a close encounter with an orca at Oriental Bay that really left her shaking.

Miss Walker was on a training swim about 5pm on Monday, about 80 metres from shore, when she looked down into the water after taking a breath.

"It was just looking up at me, a big black and white face. I could have touched it."

She believes the orca was a calf, and though she "freaked out" and tried to swim as fast as she could for the shore, Miss Walker thinks the whale's head was about 80cm wide.

"It was swimming belly up underneath me. I couldn't believe my eyes."

Though she was swimming as fast as she could, seconds later she saw the orca swimming beneath her again. She was afraid it might come up underneath her "and either grab hold of me or hit me with its tail, and that would be the end of me".

Miss Walker said she was relieved it was an orca beneath her and not a shark, but was scared something might be chasing it.

Still about 40m or 50m from shore, Miss Walker – who was wearing a wetsuit – said she began to panic and look around her.

A group of people had been rowing in the bay, and a man on a rowing coaching boat with a small outboard motor had spotted Miss Walker's frantic swim and gone towards her.

She caught on to the side of the boat and he took her to shore – where she got out of the water shaken but very relieved.

Yesterday, Miss Walker said she was sure the orca had just been curious and wanted to play, but at the time that did not prevent her from panicking.

On shore, she saw a crowd of people had gathered as they could see a mother orca and possibly three calves in the bay.

Though Miss Walker had always felt a little uneasy swimming in the ocean, she had previously felt a bit more comfortable swimming in Wellington because she was in a bay.

However, now she was safely back on dry land she was not letting the experience interrupt training, and planning to get back out into the water tonight.

Conservation Department biodiversity programme manager Peter Simpson said there had been other reports of orca sightings in Wellington Harbour on Monday. The first was about 1pm from a person at the heads who saw the pod coming in.

Orca did come into the harbour occasionally, but why was unknown. They could be following food, or simply curious.

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DOC asks anyone who spots marine mammals to report the sightings to 0800362468 (DOC hotline), or by filling out a form on its website.

Orca, though confusingly known as killer whales, are actually dolphins.

They eat other marine mammals and fish.

- The Dominion Post

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