QUADRA ISLAND – A pod of orcas surprised a group of friends visiting Quadra Island, British Columbia, last weekend, appearing just yards from where they were on the waterline of Molds Bay.
The shore skimming encounter prompted a marine mammal expert to warn that observers should not get too close to such behavior.
“They are on the hunt. We can observe it, we just can’t be part of it,” Andrew Trites, professor and director of the University of British Columbia’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, said Friday.
Erika van Sittert, who captured video of the encounter, said she and her four friends were excited when they first spotted the capsule in the distance.
She said they were then shocked when the whales appeared about 20 minutes later, coming within three meters of her friend Callum MacNab, standing ankle-deep in water.
Van Sittert, who was sitting on a rock above, said she was initially concerned for MacNab’s safety due to the whales’ high-speed approach, but described the encounter as “by far one of the most exciting times” of his life.
“I was mostly impressed. I did not expect this to happen. I used to work in whale watching and had a few encounters, but nothing like that,” she said in an interview on Friday. “It was just amazing.”
She said the group is now considering getting matching orca tattoos to commemorate the experience.
Jared Towers, a killer whale researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, identified the group as belonging to the T−090 family, which includes a mother, her adult son and two daughters.
“The two girls, aged five and 12, were the two whales that came closest to shore and turned sideways to check on Callum on shore,” he said in an interview on Friday. .
Towers said he didn’t believe the whales had malicious intent and likely hunted and mistook humans for prey first, or were “just curious”.
“They love to hunt in this area (because there are lots of harbor seals, and that’s really what makes up most of their diet, and they hang out near the shore,” he said.
Towers said there was no record of an orca killing a human in the wild.
“They are definitely masters of their own environment and if there’s something swimming there they want to check it out, see what it looks like and see if it’s prey,” he said.
Trites of the Marine Mammal Research Unit predicted that these types of encounters will occur more frequently in British Columbia
“Everyone now has a high definition video camera in their pockets and so we are seeing these encounters, but it is also proof that the whales are here much more frequently than before,” he said.
“We all want to have these incredible close encounters, but not at the expense of hurting the animals, harming them or preventing them from coming here.”
Trites said killer whales are comfortable hunting close to shore this time of year and people should aim to keep a distance.
“For us, it’s about developing this new relationship, because things have changed. The oceans have changed very dramatically and we see that playing out before us,” he said.
“Just as you wouldn’t want to walk around the Serengeti and join in a lion hunt, you also need to respect and take a step back because killer whales live their lives because they hunt.”
By Brieanna Charlebois