Orca sightings in the Whangārei Harbour have become a familiar social media post on Whangārei Heads' pages of late, prompting much excitement, but their presence is not unusual for the season.
They were likely being noticed because residents were at home more during the recent lockdown, along with less water traffic disturbance, said Orca Research Trust scientist Dr Ingrid Visser.
"August, September and October are key months for when we expect to see the most orca. The orca [were] not being harassed by so many boats so they stay longer in the harbours, could be another reason. Yesterday [Wednesday], Funky Monkey and Pickle were there and it was lovely to see him and he was doing really well," said Visser on Thursday.
Funky Monkey is a well-known character and, estimated at about 5.5m, is one of the largest orca in New Zealand. He was named after a researcher noted the distinctive "funky" divot in his dorsal fin, likely to be caused by a boat strike in his earlier days. Visser said he was aged over 30 and sister Pickle, 11.
This time last year, the Northern Advocate ran a story about Funky Monkey and Pickle, along with their sibling Pumpkin and mother holding up "rush hour traffic" for water commuting refinery workers. The pod included an extended family of eight orca who were crossing a sandbank at the Blind Channel just out from Marsden Cove when Funky Monkey's larger frame banked itself. The family circled him before swimming to deeper water to wait while Visser and volunteers worked to keep the mammal hydrated as the tide came in. They then returned to coax him on.
Visser believed that the mammal, who she had tracked throughout his life, would have recognised her boat, and was probably familiar with her voice. She also suspected that he was "a veteran of this scenario".
"Based on his behaviour I'd say he has done this before. It wasn't his first rodeo," she said, after last year's incident.
His "cool, calm and collected" demeanour was calculated with Funky Monkey waiting 10 minutes between trying various tactics to free himself while patiently waiting for the tide to come in.
Then, "He was powering away, using his tail in a steady but strong beat and making lots of splashes as he slowly began to move forward.
"Then his momentum increased, and so did his efforts, until suddenly he was off the bottom and in deeper water."
On Wednesday, Funky Monkey became partially stranded trying to cross a sand bar in front of Tamaterau but managed to free himself, said Visser, who was alerted to their presence via witnesses calling the 0800 number.
"It's a calculated risk. It's just part of their foraging behaviour and they get very skilled at it," she said, adding that it was likely he had taken part in "practice strandings" she had witnessed in the Hokianga.
"They're coming in to hunt the ray and sharks in the harbour."
Sightings could be as often as every few days or up to six weeks apart. There were about 40 local orca known to and catalogued by Visser. Tracking gathered basic life history such as social interactions, foraging, habitat and calving.
Visser said she relies on calls to 0800 SEE ORCA (0800 733 6722) from the public to track their progress.
"Every call is vital because, by the time the first call comes in and I get to the boat ramp, they could have travelled very far. Yesterday, it took me an hour to find them from the first call as they went over 20km up as far as Golden Bay Cement wharf by Limestone up the harbour past the airport."
Orca can travel between 100km and 150km a day. Although Funky Monkey has been seen as far south as the Marlborough Sounds and north of Cape Reinga, Visser said they were "Northland-savvy" mammals, because this was a good hunting ground for stingrays.
Of the 40-plus orca Visser tracks, she claims to have no favourites: "My favourite is always the one I'm watching on the day."
Marine mammal regulations
It is illegal to enter the water with the intention to swim or dive or snorkel with orca, in New Zealand waters. Visser has a special permit issued by the Department of Conservation to conduct her research.
Boats must observe the following:
Never approach closer than 50m, always approach from behind and never go in between individuals in a group. You must not drive faster than 5 knots when approaching and leaving the orca (for up to 200m).