An orca expert has blasted the Department of Conservation for their inaction which resulted in a man being stood down from his job when he rescued an orca that was close to death.

Whitianga Harbourmaster Mat Collicott was stood down from his operational duties today after he saved an orca with some others at 1am this morning. This is after waiting 16 hours for DOC to respond.

Scientist Dr Ingrid Visser said the handling of the situation was "deplorable".

She said DOC could have called experts or conservationists to help. Instead they left it until locals decided to do it themselves, and Collicott was punished.


She understands that DOC are struggling with budget cuts but they didn't need to pay anything to get this orca rescued.

Visser founded the Orca Research Trust which has a team fully trained in whale rescue.

"If DOC had made the phone call to the right people then Mat wouldn't have had to be called at midnight.

"Because DOC didn't respond and Mat did, Mat's lost his job.

"It boggles the mind how this happened.

"They're all in a case of cover their ass. Everyone is keeping their mouth shut because they don't want to be blamed."

The killer whale was feeding on stingrays yesterday off Tokaroa Rock, at Tuateawa Bay.

A Facebook post to a Whitianga community page said DOC was alerted at 9.30am yesterday. At 7pm it still could not get to the orca, so locals decided to get involved and do it themselves.


That's when Collicott stepped in. He teamed up with Cathedral Cove water taxi operators and they untangled the orca.

Visser said the stressed orca was swimming to the surface to breathe once every minute "which is incredibly fast for a stationary animal". She said orcas can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes.

By the time Collicott got to the orca it had been tangled for over 16 hours. It had to drag a heavy craypot to the surface each time it wanted to breathe.

Visser said when Collicott got there the orca was being supported by another underwater.

"It was vital that they intervened, or that animal would have died."

Collicott took the boat closer to the whale and was able to hook up the line with the cray pot and pull it alongside to take the weight off the animal. They then cut it free and it immediately swam off with the others.

Collicott claimed today on Facebook: "So my boss just stood me down from my Harbourmaster role for going out at night on the boat to save an orca."

Collicott will be back at work tomorrow but will not be allowed to do his usual operational duties, which includes going out on vessels.

DOC communications adviser Nick Hirst said a fisherman reported the tangled orca on Wednesday morning. At that time staff with the appropriate training were on an island on the western side of the peninsula. They were only able to leave by late afternoon.

By that time DOC had a second report from the fisherman that he thought the orca was not in imminent danger.

"The trained DOC staff struck rough sea conditions and strong winds as they headed for the orca. As the orca was not in imminent danger and they were unable to reach it before it got dark, they returned to Whitianga."

Hirst said the staff intended to rescue the orca early on Thursday morning. He said the rescue of entangled marine mammals carries "a high degree of risk" and should only be done by those who have the appropriate training.

"This is to ensure the people carrying out the rescue are not put in danger and to ensure that the entangled animal is also kept safe."

Visser said this is not the first time DOC have neglected to save a killer whale. She cited the March stranding and death of an orca in South Taranaki as another example of DOC failing marine mammals. She believed DOC rank marine mammals with a lower priority.

Visser said we should be fiercely protecting New Zealand orca. She explained there are fewer orca than kiwis, around 200. They have their own dialect, hunting technique and social groupings making them "very very special".

"There's a fundamental flaw in the way DOC is operating. This isn't the first time the hotline failed to respond to a marine animal rescue.

One of the things that worried Visser the most from this case was that Kiwis would be discouraged from helping.

"The really sad thing is New Zealanders are kind at heart, always willing to get in there and muck in in events like this. But when you see what happened to someone who does help, they lose their job. You get people frightened to help."

Cathedral Cove Water Taxi operator Hayden Smith joined Collicott on the rescue. Unlike his friend he has not been officially contacted by the council or DOC and there will be no consequences for his actions. Smith said he used to work for DOC.

​Smith said he and Collicott were "just happy to help".

When they got to the killer whale they couldn't see how it was tangled so kept watch to evaluate how they could help. They were relieved to find that they could free the whale once it brought its tail to the surface. They used a bit of rope with a crowbar tied to it to snag the line holding the whale down, then hacked through it.

"We only had to cut one piece of rope and the whole mess would be free

"He didn't jump over us or anything. He just cruised off into the night."

Hayden Smith. Photo / Supplied
Hayden Smith. Photo / Supplied

Smith did not want to comment on his friend's situation but thought the media attention could be positive for orca.

"It potentially highlights that these things do happen and there needs to be a good clear process developed to reach solutions that do come up occasionally."

Waikato Regional Council chief executive Vaughan Payne confirmed Collicott will not be performing operational duties while inquiries continue.

"The council acknowledges the staff member's good intent.

"However, the council is checking whether any regulations were breached or operational procedures not followed during the rescue."

Payne said Collicott was due to finish his employment on Friday as he resigned some time ago.