When brother and sister Nathan and Rachel Cox saw a huge dorsal fin surface near their kayak in Houhora Harbour their first thought was "great white shark".
But their concern quickly turned to excitement when they saw the marine mammal's blowhole and realised they were instead surrounded by a curious pod of orca. The pod contained several calves who were learning how to catch stingrays — one of an orca's favourite meals.
The pair set off from Pukenui about 4pm last Tuesday and about 15 minutes later, while about halfway across, they spotted the dorsal fin ominously moving towards them.
"A huge fin come up beside us and my first thought was a great white shark. Then I saw the blowhole and realised it was orca. Amazing," Mr Cox said.
"There were about 15 of them, with only three big adults, and there were lots of calves there, playing with stingrays. Trying to throw them up into the air and bashing them on the water, but it was a bit too shallow there and they weren't having much success.
"It was a very special experience for us."
Mr Cox has seen orca several times in the harbour — including once when they came up to the Pukenui Wharf when he was standing on it — but this was the first time he'd seen them feeding on stingray up close. The orca were in the harbour for about three hours.
He said he accidentally hit one of the largest orca with his paddle.
"I was trying to push off and this huge orca came up at the same time and I accidentally struck him. He just gave me a shower from his blowhole, it didn't seem to bother him."
Mr Cox said the size of the orca — he reckoned one was almost double the length of their 4-metre kayak — was awe-inspiring and made them realise just how "very, very small" we humans are.
"It was also pretty intimidating when the big fellah came right up beside the kayak.
"It was huge."
Mr Cox said his sister also loved the experience once her initial apprehension at thinking it could have been a shark vanished. "It was just an amazing, overwhelming experience for both of us."
At this time of year orca and dolphins are regularly seen along Northland's 2700km coastline.