Orca ‘Toys’ With Kayakers

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Orcas can be very interested in us!  The first event took place just north of Vancouver, Canada off the Sunshine Coast:

It may look like Andy Hoppenrath was heading towards this orca, but he was actually trying to get some distance from it. It’s the orca who kept coming to him. Margot Williams

By Martha Perkins – Bowen Island Undercurrent
Published: September 09, 2010 2:00 PM
Updated: September 09, 2010 3:01 PM
When Bruce McTaggart and Andy Hoppenrath went out in their kayaks to ride the waves for a little Saturday afternoon fun, they had no idea that an orca would decide to play along.
The two Bowen Island paddlers were about to discover what is was like to be treated like a whale toy. Exhilarating? Yes. Scary? Most definitely. One of those moments you will never, ever forget? Absolutely.
It started around noon on September 4. Northwesterly winds had created havoc for some boats that lost their moorings but to these experienced kayakers, the winds also created some fun metre-high waves to surf.
Planning on getting a little speed, they were in their lightest kayaks – McTaggart’s was a 21-foot Rapier, only 17 inches wide, and Hoppenrath’s was a sit-on-top 21-foot Kevlar surf ski.
They were on the northwest side of Worlcombe Island, just off Tunstall Bay, enjoying some “washing machine” waves. “It was really messy and soupy,” says McTaggart, who’s logged about 1,200 km of paddling this year alone. He looked out and saw some “weird wave action.” Seconds later he heard Hoppenrath shout, “Holy $@#!, there’s a killer whale.”
In December 2007, McTaggart had come upon a pod of orcas in very calm waters. There was a young calf and the whales were obviously having a lot of fun jumping in and out of the water. Those orcas had a “totally different energy” than the orca the two friends could see now a couple of metres from their kayaks.
“As soon as it found us, it decided to have fun,” McTaggart says. “He was like a sheepdog herding us.”
Thinking that they had disturbed the whale feeding on a group of nearby seals, the men decided to paddle away from the seals but the orca didn’t want them to go. The whale, which they estimate was 20 to 25 feet, dove underneath them again and again, sometimes riding alongside them, its outline clearly visible under the surface until it breached and sprayed them with water.
“I could see him swimming at high speed underneath me,” McTaggart says. “It was bizarre.”
“It was the number of times it surfaced and blew – it was like five seconds apart,” says Hoppenrath, who could feel the whale’s breath as it came out the blow hole. “He’s looking at you, then poosh! I didn’t know if he was mad or being a whale.”
“If he had nudged us, our boats are so small and lightweight we’d be in the water,” McTaggart says. However, although the orca came within a metre or two of the kayaks, it never touched them. “It was amazing how accurate he was.”
The orca separated the two kayaks by repeatedly breaching between them and then concentrated on McTaggart, who soon realized that he needed an exit strategy that didn’t include tipping over. What had started out as a bit of fun was now getting a bit more serious, especially since the waves were so high. “I was wondering how close will he play the game. I’ve seen orcas flip seals in the air. It had to be playing games but at the time we didn’t know that.”
It was the unknown that created such nervous excitement. McTaggart was reveling in the experience but at the same time aware of the precarious situation he was in. “A whale showing such energy and intensity was something I’d never experienced before.”
McTaggart started heading for Pasley Island but the whale kept heading him off.
Meanwhile, Hoppenrath was also trying to create distance between his kayak and the orca while keeping a close eye on his friend.
“I’m watching Bruce get harassed and then [the orca] came towards me,” Hoppenrath says. He saw nothing for about 40 seconds. (Cue the theme music from Jaws here.) “My big moment was when I was going down this wave and I saw him underneath me. The dorsal fin pops in front of me and then goes down.
“I thought, ‘I don’t want to crash into this whale.’ Then the tail comes up and splashes and I’m being hit by some orca wave. It was all I could do to brace to avoid being knocked down. The whale did this a couple of times, all the while I’m travelling full speed.”
The whale was so close that at times Hoppenrath could look it in the eye; at other times, he could see scratches on the fin. And yet, Hoppenrath was strangely calm. “Although it got to a point where enough’s enough, I realized he wasn’t going to hit me,” he says. “I felt like I’d won a lottery.”
Watching the excitement unfold were Margot Williams of Richmond, her eight-year-old son Jack and her brother David Williams and his two kids from Toronto. They’d been walking on Pasley island when they heard that three whales – two adults and either a baby or a juvenile – had just swum through North Bay. They got in their boat and spotted the orcas between Hermit and the Pophams but then the orcas disappeared. The Williamses floated leisurely in the water until they saw one of the orcas “swimming like a porpoise” as it quickly headed towards Worlcombe Island. They followed at a safe distance and then slowed when they came across the kayakers.
“At first it seemed they were enjoying the encounter but then it looked like the whale was getting too close and was actually herding them,” Williams says in an email. “As one kayaker tried to turn away from it, it circled around the kayaker and made him turn back. This happened quite a few times and we actually thought the whale had bumped against the kayak on a few passes.
“One kayak eventually got away and the whale was working the other one when we slowly put the boat between them. The kayaker was then able to paddle safely around the back of a small island and join his friend.”
The orca circled the boat at least six times before swimming off. “My son Jack loves animals could not believe it as he watched the whale swim under the boat and come up the other side,” Williams says.
Everyone agrees that the incident lasted about 10 minutes.
The Undercurrent contacted Paul Cottrell, the marine mammal co-ordinator for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “It’s interesting behaviour,” says Cottrell, who also uses the word “unusual” to describe the orca’s behaviour.

And this warmhearted story from blogger Jeanne Hyde also shows an orca’s interest, near San Juan Island:

Blackberry J-27 surfaced right in the middle of a bunch of boats……there were two sail boats, each with a small dingy behind…one of the boats had a couple kids on board…and they were definitely excited…Blackberry was foraging…he moved ‘this way and that’……after several minutes Blackberry seemed to ‘pick a direction’…he looked like he was starting to cross over toward Turn Pt. lighthouse……the sail boat with the kids on board began to move away from Blackberry because he had picked them to move toward...it became rather comical to watch as Blackberry kept following the boat…and the kids began to yell that the whale was going to get the dingy…the boat continued to slowly move away…the kids kept yelling…Blackberry kept following!…

…then the boat, still moving away, made a turn in the attempts to move further away from Blackberry…Blackberry turned in their direction surfacing, in a line behind the boat!!!
…he surfaced twice before changing his direction and moving off in the southerly direction the rest of the whales were taking…

Encounters like these are only possible because people can, and do, get out on the water with the orcas. Risky to ourselves or not, we do get a glimmer of the intelligence of the whales, and gain an appreciation for their interest in us when they choose to swim close to our boats.

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