When big swells hit the shores it usually makes a good news story as surfers rush out to take advantage of the waves but when this happened on the shores of Sandy Bay in northern New Zealand, it wasn’t human’s making the surfing news – it was killer whales. The black and while orcas hit the waves with style and were caught on film by a local news photographer.
Unlike in other areas, the orcas in New Zealand are known to occasionally “hang fins” on the surf, but rarely is someone on the beach ready with a camera. Surfers across the world have had similar experiences with dolphins but New Zealand may be the only place where orca surfing has been observed.
“They knew what they were doing,” Michael Cunningham, a Northern Advocate photographer who witnessed and photographed the amazing orcas. “They looked like they’d done it before.”
Cunningham was bodysurfing when the orcas moved in on the break, quickly swimming ashore to grab his camera to document the amazing activity. He said foreign tourists were the first out of the water when the orcas appeared Friday. He had been swimming for about an hour before they arrived, and after catching a wave in he looked back and saw several orcas, including a calf, riding a large wave shoreward.
According to Ingrid Visser, founder of the Orca Research Trust near Sandy Bay and authority on orcas, she does not know of anywhere else on earth where orcas spend a significant amount of time riding waves. Also only a few sharp images of this phenomenon exist and that Cunningham’s photos could be used in a research paper on the country’s surfing orcas.
Visser has seen the orcas surfing before, mostly from a boat behind the breaking waves providing quite an interesting view of their behavior. Most notably, the kick-out moves by the orcas as the waves close out or get too close to shore provide an amazing sight
“They’ll often come right out of the back of the wave and breach out into the trough that follows behind,” Visser said. “And that’s really exciting to see as well.”
Although the orcas in New Zealand have never been known to attack humans, some surfers don’t take the risk, while others thrive on the opportunity to be so close to the majestic animals. New Zealand’s orcas prey mostly on rays and small sharks.