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Group has close encounter with shore-skimming orca pod in B.C.

Experts advise people not to get too close when they spot orcas in the wild

A pod of orcas surprised a group of friends visiting Quadra Island, British Columbia, last weekend, appearing metres from where they stood on the waterline of Moulds Bay.

The shore-skimming encounter prompted one marine mammal expert to warn that observers should not to get too close to such behaviour.

“They’re on the hunt. We can observe it, we just can’t be a part of it,” said Andrew Trites, professor and director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, on Friday.

Erika van Sittert, who captured a video of the encounter, said she and her four friends were excited when they first spotted the pod in the distance.

She said they were then shocked when the whales appeared about 20 minutes later, coming within three metres of her friend Callum MacNab, standing ankle-deep in the water.

Van Sittert, who had been seated on a rock above, said she was initially worried for MacNab’s safety because of the whales’ high-speed approach, but describes the encounter as “easily one of the most exciting moments” of her life.

“I was mostly in awe. I didn’t expect that to happen. I used to work in whale watching and I’ve had some encounters, but nothing quite like that,” she said in an interview Friday. “It was just incredible.”

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 pod as the T-090 family, which includes a mother, her adult son and two daughters.

“The two daughters, aged five and 12, were the two whales that came closest to the shore and rolled over on their sides to check out Callum on the shore,” he said in an interview Friday.

Towers said he doesn’t believe the whales had malicious intent and were likely either hunting and initially mistook the humans for prey, or were “just curious.”

“They love hunting in that area (because) there’s a lot of harbour seals, and that’s really what makes up the bulk of their diet, and they hang out near shore,” he said.

Towers said there is no record of an orca killing a human in the wild.

“They’re certainly masters of their own environment and if there’s anything swimming around out there, they want to check it out, see what it looks like and see if it is prey,” he said.

Trites, of the Marine Mammal Research Unit, predicted these types of encounters will happen more frequently in B.C.

“Everybody now has a high-definition video camera in their pockets and so we’re seeing these encounters, but it’s also evidence that the whales are here far more frequently now than they used to be,” he said.

“All of us want to have these amazing close encounters, but not at the expense of injuring the animals, harming them, or causing them to avoid coming here.”

Trites said killer whales are comfortable hunting near shore at this time of year and people should aim to keep a distance.

“It is about us developing this new relationship, because things have changed. The oceans have changed very dramatically and we’re seeing that play out in front of us,” he said.

“Just as you wouldn’t wander into the Serengeti and take part in a lion hunt, you also need to respect and stand back as killer whales are going about their lives because they’re hunting.”

— By Brieanna Charlebois in Vancouver.