In light of some recent and incredible footage of orcas and humans interacting in New Zealand, I reached out to author Wade Doak to get his two cents on the context of these meetings and his impressions of them. Below are his thoughts. – Laura Bridgeman, Director, Sonar
Orca are responding to boats here in New Zealand with increasing intensity. People post their Facebook videos of the interactions frequently. Everyone aboard has a handy device that records sight and sound readily and they can just as easily be shared online and in the newspapers. Human /orca culture here really seems to be evolving.
This has to be seen in an historical context. In fifty years at sea with all our diving trips and Project Interlock research, my wife Jan and I never saw or heard positive orca reports from others that embody the quality of the encounters that are occurring so frequently now. (We had a good network with our media activities: I published a diving magazine for 76 issues; wrote twenty books – I have done six on cetaceans;magazine columns and appeared in many TV documentaries about the sea).
One orca came to a vessel doing scientific work and, perpendicular to its hull, close in on the surface, lay there and emitted a loud, prolonged raspberry through her blowhole.
But orca were once feared. A diver hid in a cave and messed his suit when one inspected him. Fishermen carried guns and would shoot at them. A top diver tried to spear one. Navy divers dreaded them.
Then, after my first two cetacean books, which have positive orca encounter stories from overseas, there was a series of benign diver/ orca meetings that I circulated and archived as the “Gentle Jaws” anecdotes. Our own professional underwater cameraman son Brady had one gently pull his fin. Later he found he had filmed that very same female orca two years previously. It was as though the orca had come around to say, “Hi, remember me?”
Because of regular media publicity, the people of Aotearoa, New Zealand, have now come to regard orca highly and talk to them fondly. I hear them speaking joyfully to orca on my computer as I watch videos of interactions. I have been sent images of intimate meetings with kayakers. One man, Nathan Pettigrew, has a special permit to meet and document them. He is obviously known and favoured by coast cruising orca.
I see orca mothers bringing their young alongside boats. One orca came to a vessel doing scientific work and, perpendicular to its hull, close in on the surface, lay there and emitted a loud, prolonged raspberry through her blowhole. As they hunt around our coasts their inshore visits are media events that never seem to lose their appeal in our major maritime cities, towns, and harbours. It seems orca have carried out an incredible media campaign to win our hearts.
But I fear for the human impact of overfishing their soft fin ray, palatable bony foodstocks (such as kahawai or ‘sea salmon’ as is the Australian term) that may be forcing them to concentrate on rays in shallow waters where they risk stranding. One orca, named Ben, has been rescued twice in his early years. I know a Maori girl who got into the sea and disentangled one from fishing gear. But in her tribal history a hero was rescued by orca….
For some (highly recommended) further reading, see a list of Wade’s books here.
Photo credit Nathan Pettigrew.