Our marine educator columnist spends a day with an orca and her calf off the Bay of Plenty coast.


The killer whale. Its original name, ‘whale killer’, derived from sailors of yesteryear seeing these animals hunting, killing and eating much bigger whales by chasing them in large packs. The two words would eventually be switched, and today we know them better by the name ‘orca’.

The most widely distributed marine mammal on the planet, orca are the largest member of the dolphin family and feed on various types of prey throughout the world. New Zealand orca feed predominately on rays, sharks and occasionally other dolphins; each pod generally contains four to eight animals that are ‘resident’ to this country and cruise our coastlines searching for prey.

Due to the locations in which their hunting takes place here, orca strand more often than any other marine mammal. Some refloat themselves on incoming tides, but sadly others don’t make it back to deeper water.

A pod of around eight orca recently ventured into Tauranga Harbour in search of food and to rest, and among them were a couple of juveniles and a very young calf. With only around 150 orca in New Zealand waters, they’re listed as ‘nationally critical’, so the sight of this little one brought some hope for their species.

Orca babies are born with fetal folds – wrinkles along their bodies from being tightly contained in the womb. These weren’t visible on the young one, which told me it was more than six months old. Another indicator of the age of the calf was its yellow-ish ‘eye’ patch, which will become whiter at around 12 months.

At such a young age, the cautious baby stays by its mother’s side and is guided by the parent at all times until it builds the confidence to venture off for a few minutes at a time. In this situation, I’m careful not to create any unwanted stress for the mother and baby, but although some members of the pod were feeding, sending rays airborne in an effort to escape, others were sleeping, giving me the opportunity to acquire some fantastic footage for the educational presentations I host.

When it comes to the lives of these wondrous animals, there’s a fragile balance – we’re fascinated by them, but this is also their undoing. In years past, they didn’t have the concerns of engine noise, propellers and the sheer number of people that are on the water today. On a busy day, Tauranga Harbour can be a minefield for animals who’re forced to dodge boats within the narrow channels. If we’re able to give orca some space and slow down around them a bit, that newborn calf might have a fighting chance, and give our orca population a much-needed boost. 

Nathan Pettigrew holds a marine mammal permit from the Department of Conservation.