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Watch NZH Local Focus: The selfie that could cost up to $250k

By Hunter Calder

There's concern that boaties and recreational users are getting too close to killer whales on New Zealand shores.

This comes as more footage of orca sightings is posted and shared across social media in recent weeks.

The Craig family came across about a dozen orca on Saturday when they were coming back from Mercury Island on the Coromandel Coast

Skipper Aaron Craig says his wife and two children were "entering the bar and saw orca right along Matarangi beach right of in the distance."

As three of the orca approached their vessel, skipper Aaron Craig turned off the engine - to avoid propeller strike.

"I thought well they're that close if they are that close and they come closer and check the boat out, and the motor is going that will do them more damage than it will us."

After all the "screaming and yelling" of excitement Mr Craig noticed that some of the whales in the pod had "damaged fins".

"It does make you think and stand up and say hey these things are getting hit... and I guess the only thing that could do that is probably a prop."

According to Norhtland-based orca expert Dr Ingrid Visser, New Zealand rates highest in the world for orca strikes by boat. She knows of nine New Zealand orca strikes since 1982.

In other parts of the world she says she only knows of four collisions, and that's when vessels are out there to "specifically target and encounter orca."

The Department of Conservation's Marine Ranger, Krista Hupman, says it's devastating and could be a "real blow to the population" if orca are hit and even killed when there's less than 250 of the mammals left in New Zealand waters.

"The reason that we should be concerned is that these animals are wild, apex predators that need their space and also we don't want to hit, injure or kill any of these animals."

"People need to understand how lucky we are to even come close to these animals so to ensure that their populations stay stable over time we just need to make sure that we use our common sense."

Dr Visser agrees, and is advocating for more awareness around the laws of the Marine Mammals Protection Act.

Krista Hupman says the main rules are:

1. Stick to a speed of five knots around large marine wildlife
2. Keep a 50 metre buffer between your vessel and orca - 200 metres if there is a calf
3. Keep their pathway clear - don't obstruct their route
4. A maximum of 3 vessels to surround or be near mammals (a kayak is also a vessel)
5. Don't swim with orca

While Dr Visser encourages people to see and enjoy marine animals in their native habitat she says it should be done at a respectful distance so the wild creatures have space to move freely.

"You don't crowd wildlife animals in shallow water because they have to come up and breathe."

If orca do come close she says boats can go out of gear to avoid striking the mammal, but skippers must ensure there are no orca near their boat before starting the propeller again.

"It comes down to common sense, holding a steady course and steady speed of five knots means objects in the water become "predictable for orca to navigate around".

"It's really simple and really effective".

Anyone caught harassing or injuring orca faces a fine of up to $250,000 - or jail time.

Members of the public are being urged by DOC to report any marine animal harassment case to 0800 DOC HOT.

Sightings, strandings and entanglements of Orca can be reported to the Orca Research Trust (www.orcaresearch.org) by calling 0800 SEE ORCA

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- NZ Herald

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