Diving with orcas!

Close encounter!
(picture by Amos Nachoum)

the FRIENDLY killers

Killer whales, or orcas - from the Latin for 'lower world' - were named to reflect their renowned predatory nature. So why in New Zealand do so many divers report close and seemingly safe encounters with these creatures?
Wade Doak investigates

While concentrating on the viewing prism of his Hasselblad camera, veteran photographer Warren Farrelly heard a weird sound. He had just taken a shot of a paddle crab amid vivid jewel anemones, and was waiting for the camera's twin strobe lights to recharge, with their shrill electronic whirr. But the sound he heard seemed to come from elsewhere. Was it his ears squealing because he had not equalised properly? He continued taking pictures until his film ran out. Then he began to worry about the sound. It rose as the strobes recharged and reduced as they reached full power. It seemed to mimic the sound pattern his strobes were making, but where was it coming from? Slowly, he realised it was behind him. On turning round, he came face to face with four enormous, motionless orcas. "The middle pair were close enough to touch. I just stared." After a few moments, they departed. Possibly they had become bored without the sound of the recharging flashes to mimic. As they left, Farrelly noticed that they didn't seem to disturb the water in the least, something others have also remarked on. "I left the water feeling incredibly clumsy but touched by magic," he said.

This is just one of an extraordinary sequence of curious encounters between orcas and divers in the waters off New Zealand. Several episodes of friendly interaction between orcas and boats have been reported. There was the female orca who rested her head on a stern platform to be stroked, and the film-maker who obtained footage of three orcas headstanding in the shallows. And in separate incidents divers have entered the water to release orcas that have become enmeshed in nets. But the in-water encounters would almost be beyond belief - had they not occurred on several separate occasions.

On one occasion Peter O'Donnel was completing a day's lobster diving. As he surfaced, he called to his friend, dozing in the boat about 150m away. Just then his foot hit something solid. He knew that the reef was too deep for it to be rock. "I hesitated to look," he said. "Whatever it was took hold of my flipper. I peered down. A great black-and-white thing was hovering there, vertical in the water, stock still. No sound or bubbles. I couldn't believe my eyes. After about 10 seconds it just opened its mouth, slipped back and vanished in the murk." He hovered in the water as the orca started swimming towards him, coming at him from different angles, gliding by at touching distance. Next it repeatedly reared up out of the water alongside him, arching over. "By the time my boat reached me I had been with the orca for about eight minutes. I had given up on life," he confessed. "I just knew it was going to eat me. "Thinking it over afterwards, I had a strong feeling that something really alien - this incredibly strong mind - was trying to communicate with me, and I'm fairly sure now that it wouldn't have hurt me."

Jim Skenars and Thelma Wilson were scuba diving off New Plymouth, North Island when a 4m orca began circling them less than a metre away. It seemed to be inspecting them, one at a time. "It gave the impression of curiosity, not at all threatening," said Skenars. "Thelma was able to run her hand down its side during one pass." Todd Sylvester was working as a biologist at Leigh Marine Laboratory when he surfaced after a dive to find an orca about 5m long, 9m away. To be on the safe side he dived to the bottom, seeking cover. As he looked over his shoulder, however, he saw that the orca had followed him down. "Thinking it was just a chance encounter, with me going in one direction and the orca in another, I swam faster, but to my horror the orca followed me. "Things got infinitely worse when the orca opened its huge mouth - rows of white teeth greeted me, just centimetres from my flippers. The orca then sped up and put its mouth around my right foot, ankle and flipper, but at no stage did it close its mouth and bite me." Sylvester managed to pull his foot out of the beast's cavernous mouth, but the orca swam forward and this time engulfed his left foot with its mouth, but still didn't bite. "As well as pulling my leg out from its jaws (I was swimming on my back), I 'kicked' the orca off with my other foot. "I was pretty agitated, but not actually panicking. Part of me thought I was going to become whale-fodder, the other part hoped the orca was just playing with me." Each time Sylvester kicked the whale off, it returned to repeat its little game, at no time biting the foot. After about the sixth "mouthing" Sylvester had had enough. He dived quickly to the bottom and didn't see the orca again.

Several of these amazing accounts were published in a New Zealand diving magazine. It was hoped that the next diver to meet a friendly orca would be less frightened and perhaps respond in a more positive manner.

Gary Longley and two companions sighted eight orcas out from Tauranga. When a male-female pair acted inquisitively, Longley thought of the article and decided to enter the water. One of the pair glided below him, then tilted a little and stared up. It circled twice, before hanging suspended less than a metre away, looking at him. Then, as had happened to previous divers, it took the end of his fin in its mouth. "I recalled the magazine accounts and I felt less afraid," said Longley. Twice more it gently mouthed his fin, with no attempt to bite him, before the pair swam off. Encouraged by this safe outcome, Longley returned to the boat for a thawed bait fish. "Lifting my head above water, I saw a big fin coming towards me. Silently the two orcas cruised by, eyeing me closely. On the next pass, I waved the fish at them. Slowly one approached and mouthed it very gently, its massive teeth only centimetres from my slightly trembling hand." The baitfish was rejected as the orcas swam away without taking it. They came back however, again passing just as close, and nudging at the fish. "Everything went dark, as the beast gracefully swam within an arm's length," remembers Longley. "There was no turbulence, as I would have expected. Yet it was enormous." After several circuits, the orca pair continued on their eastward journey, ending the 10-minute encounter.

Nobody really knows why the New Zealand orcas seem keen to make contact in this way. Are they offering us a gesture of trust, in the way that dogs and dolphins will mouth a human hand? Have we been underestimating the intelligence of these large and fascinating creatures? According to brain scientist Dr Peter Morgane of the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in Mass-achusetts: "All the neurological evidence is not in yet, regarding the whale brain and intelligence. However, enough is known to lead us to believe we are dealing with special creatures with remarkably developed brains. "Major riddles of nature and relations between species may indeed be answered by the study of these brains, and these opportunities may die with the whales if we do not act now."

The fascinating behaviour of New Zealand orcas continued to be reported.

Following the earlier accounts, Patrick Kavanagh and companions came across a pod of five orcas eight miles north-east of Whale Island, Bay of Plenty. Two females, who were apparently trailing the rest, appeared to be very inquisitive and repeatedly approached the boat which Kavanagh was in. He decided to join them in the water. "One swam straight towards me and very, very slowly passed beneath, lying on her side. As her eye levelled with mine, she momentarily stopped and seemed to rise slowly to within an arm's length of my face. I remember her large dark eye moving up and down as she looked at me." Her curiosity satisfied, she moved on and swam up to the other whale. They both then hung in the water at the surface, side by side, but facing opposite directions. Kavanagh observed closely from about 10m away. After a while, the first whale turned and headed slowly towards him. "I noticed she was swaying slightly from side to side as she approached. I must admit I was a little worried when only a metre away she showed no sign of stopping. "She was very deliberate in what she was doing and finally stopped literally just a few centimetres from my face. I was very tempted to touch her, and indeed if I had just nodded my head, I would have, but I didn't want to spoil things." Instead he decided to get a photograph, so after a few seconds "that seemed like hours", he slowly backed off so that he could get more than just black in the shot. This seemed to break the contact for she moved slowly away and rejoined the other orca who was still in the same position, some 10m away. Again they hovered, this time nose to nose. No sound was heard from either, but after a good 20 seconds in this position the second orca dived underneath the first. It then did exactly the same as the first had done: the same swaying and the same slow approach, and stopped the same distance from Kavanagh's face. "I got the impression that the first had given the second the OK to come and have a look at me," he said. After a few seconds, this whale moved off and, together with the first one, slowly dived and was gone. Kavanagh climbed back on to the boat speechless, and scarcely believing the experience that he had just had. The whales stayed nearby, and made many close approaches to the boat. At one stage the first female swam by on her side with her mouth wide open. In total that day, Kavanagh and his friends spent around two and a half hours with the orcas. It is something that had a profound effect: "I find it hard to express the emotions I felt after this, but can only say I had a multitude of feelings, all of them good."

In 1994, my son Brady met orcas in the same marine lab area as biologist Todd Sylvester. When Brady slipped into the water with his bulky video camera, four whales made repeated passes, barrel-rolling as they swept by, as if to examine him more easily. Thinking they had departed, Brady stopped the camera. Soon after, he felt something nudge his left fin. "Looking down, I was astonished to find a large female gently holding my bright yellow fin in her teeth as if to say: 'Here I am, dummy!' I learned my lesson and kept the camera rolling from then on." A large black cloud was blocking the setting sun and it was getting very dim in the water. But on the seabed 10m below, Brady could see white bellies flashing and suspected the whales were up to something. Snorkelling down, he found two females and a juvenile rolling belly up, apparently rubbing their heads in the sand. He made repeated dives to try to see what was going on. The whales would go up to the surface to breathe, then return to the same spot to continue their peculiar activity. On his last dive, he got right down among them and saw a small ray erupt out of the sand from near their heads. Too short of breath to stay and see what happened next, Brady returned to the surface. He feels fairly sure that the whales were trying to scare the ray off the sea floor. But why? "I have no idea if they were playing, trying to teach the young one or show me something," he said. "We returned to the shore in darkness, excited and elated." When Brady compared this video footage with material from a previous orca encounter in the same area, he was delighted to discover that the same female who mouthed his fin had eyeballed him closely three years earlier. "Hi dummy!"

From DIVER - August 1999

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