For some, spotting a pod of orcas would be something to celebrate, but when a group of whales surrounded Norman Strickland’s small, 18-foot boat, he was nothing but terrified.
The 67-year-old fisherman from Burgeo, Newfoundland, went out on the water with his daughter and dog at around 10:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. After travelling about half a mile from shore, he saw a fin moving slowly through the water, about 150 feet away.
He initially thought the fin belonged to a blue shark, but shortly after it disappeared five or six orcas surfaced next to his boat. Strickland told CBC Radio’s On the Go that he’s never encountered the whales in person, but the white on their bodies gave them away.
The orcas quickly surrounded his boat on all sides, so that he was unable to change directions and keep his distance. They kept up with the boat for about half an hour, even as Strickland slowly steered it to shore.
Jack Lawson, a whale researcher for Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), told CBC that orcas are extremely interested in boats and, like dolphins, they’ll bump around the front and sides of the vessel.
Unfortunately it wasn’t the magical experience some might imagine.
“I was really, really scared,” Strickland said.
When the whales began bumping the boat aggressively, he said he was hesitant to grab the lifejackets on board, because he was afraid of stumbling and falling overboard. If that were to happen, he says, the lifejackets wouldn’t do much.
“…if you were thrown into the water, those things [are] going to eat you anyway,” he told CBC. “From what I’ve seen on Google, those things just tear other things apart…I figured we were the next victims of those orcas.”
But according to Lawson, orcas are “pretty smart predators,” and he doesn’t think the whales would mistake Strickland and his family for a group of seals.
“Generally these animals are seen approaching people in the water, even kayakers and swimmers, but there has never been a case of one eating anybody,” he said.
Lawson did note, however, that Strickland’s encounter is extremely rare. He said he’s gone through more than 1,000 reports of killer whale encounters off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, and only four detail a person being struck or chased by one of the whales.
In fact, Lawson told CBC that he’s actually been trying to have an encounter like Strickland’s.
“I’d be quite excited if these killer whales were to come around my vessel, but I understand why people in a boat that’s probably the same size as these whales would be nervous.”
He said Strickland took the right approach by heading to shore.