Time to leave as orcas play

By Eloise Gibson

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Kirisimasi Foaga. Photo / Dean Purcell
Kirisimasi Foaga. Photo / Dean Purcell

Playtime or dinnertime ... diver Kirisimasi Foaga didn't know which it was as six orcas swam towards him and nudged him.

And he wasn't hanging around to find out.

The Mangere man was spear-fishing in Murrays Bay on the North Shore on Saturday when the sea giants saw him.

The terrified fisherman, who at first thought he was being stalked by a huge shark, was spotted frantically swimming away by a boat crew and pulled to safety.

"About six of them came straight to me," he said. "Maybe they wanted to play, but it was scary.

"They were very close to me. They touched me, but I didn't touch them."

Earlier in the week, residents of Army Bay on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula watched from a clifftop as 20 or 30 orcas closed in on two snorkellers.

The biggest orca - which witnesses said was about 7m long - left the pod and swam towards the snorkellers, one of whom cut himself scrambling onto a rock.

Orca researcher Dr Ingrid Visser said it was unlikely the orcas in either case intended to hurt the men.

She said they were probably curious about Mr Foaga, and she suspected the snorkellers happened to be in the path of a pod hunting stingrays.

Army Bay resident Stephen Durling described watching from a clifftop as a group of 20 or 30 orcas swam along the coastline.

Suddenly, a large orca swam towards the two snorkellers, who were about 50m from the shore.

"This orca comes in flat-out towards the rocks and right up ... It must have touched him [one of the men]," said Mr Durling. "The diver got a hell of a fright."

"They [the snorkellers] stood on the highest rock they could find until the orcas backed off a little, then they swam to shore."

Mr Durling's neighbour, who did not want to be named, also saw the incident, and went down to the beach to check on the snorkellers.

"They were all right. One had gashed his leg trying to swim away from it and caught a rock, which tore his wetsuit and cut his leg open," said the neighbour.

The big orca zoomed to shore "faster than a jetski", he said.

"The orca definitely broke off and charged them. It came right in within a couple of feet, but from what the snorkellers said they were in a valley of rocks there and the orca hit the rocks."

The neighbour's wife said it was "just like in Jaws".

"We thought it was going to be a bloodbath," she said.

Dr Visser said the neighbours' descriptions of an orca breaking away and zooming to shore "exactly matched" the behaviour of an orca hunting stingray.

"There has not been a record anywhere in the world of orcas attacking humans in the wild."

She had seen orcas approach divers out of curiosity, as they appeared to have done with Mr Foaga.

"They see divers, and they go, 'Oh cool, I'm going to go have a look'.

"They might swim around you two or three times - particularly if you do something exciting like freak out and thrash around.

"The young orca are like puppies ... If you swim like crazy they will chase you because it is a game to them."

Orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family, and are sometimes known as killer whales.

New Zealand orcas can grow to 8m in length and weigh up to 5.5 tonnes. They are unusual because they live mostly on a diet of stingrays.

Dr Visser said it was illegal to get into the water with orcas without a permit, but if orcas approached a person already in the sea, he or she should stay calm.

Despite his frightening experience, Mr Foaga said he would be back in the water next weekend.

"If I see them again I'll just say hi," he laughed.

- NZ Herald

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