A pair of orcas in Wellington's Scorching Bay attracted a crowd of fascinated onlookers but a swimmer who could have had the best view was blissfully unaware of them.
It wasn't until the orcas – from a pod of six that entered the bay on Sunday night – started closing in on him that the bystanders began screaming to get his attention.
"Because everybody was paying attention to [the orcas], no-one really noticed that there was a swimmer," Miramar resident Shannon Thomas said. "He didn't know that they were there and they just kept getting closer and closer and closer."
Another man ran into the water and screamed at the swimmer, who at one point was only about three metres from the orcas, which despite being called killer whales are actually part of the dolphin family.
"I guess when he was doing his breaths – when he tilted his breath above the water to take a breath – he must have heard screaming," Mr Thomas said. "You should have seen his face when he turned around and saw the two dorsal fins, he was running pretty good."
Conservation Department marine mammal specialist Nadine Bott said it was just as well the orcas weren't interested in the man, because no amount of rapid swimming or running would have done him any good.
"It's interesting that people talk about swimming as fast as they can to get out of the water. There's no way you could outswim an orca. In some ways, you kind of think `just enjoy the experience'."
Orcas had not been known to attack humans in the wild, only in captivity. "I think you're pretty safe, but it is intimidating because they do seem to appear out of nowhere and they're so huge and have a good set of teeth on them.
"But they're smart enough to work out that you're not really edible. They've got tastier things to go for."
Orcas commonly visit Wellington between spring and autumn, following prey such as stingrays into warmer and shallower waters.
- The Dominion Post