OK, so we're not Kaikoura. There's no tourist boats and planes buzzing about, no large Right whales migrating past, but if you know where and when to look there's a pod of Orca that is every bit as magic.

This pod regularly visit the inner northern Tauranga Harbour, swimming in on an incoming tide through the Katikati entrance between Bowentown and Matakana Island.

They're after stingray, and the stingrays know it as they scurry out of the way, sometimes jumping clear out of the water.

But Orca are smart. Working in groups they herd the rays before diving in for a quick meal (left).

Click here for 2008 photos.

above: Hunting for stingray on the harbour floor.

right: The 300mm lens on full zoom makes the jetty look closer than it really is, but the folk on the Kauri Point jetty still got a good look.

below: Coming up for air.Tauranga harbour with the Kaimai Ranges behind on a beautiful calm spring morning.

Fact File: Orca

Orca males average 7.3 metres in length, but may reach up to 9.8 metres. Sort of makes the tinny seem small. Females average around 6 metres but may grow up to 7 metres. Newborn are between 2.1 and 2.5 metres in length.

Orca can weigh up to 2.9 tonnes and are actually the largest of the dolphin family. They eat seabirds, fish, sharks, rays ... and other dolphins. In New Zealand they are mainly observed eating stingray. They have been seen to share food.

These large dolphin have been seen in all temperate, tropical and polar waters around the globe, both inshore and offshore, but they are more commonly found inshore in cooler latitudes.

Orca have been observed in groups – called pods – of up to 50 individuals, and have an estimated lifespan of 60 years for males and 90 years for females. Newborn Orca feed on their mother's milk for at least a year (yup .. milk ... they're mammals remember, warm blooded, breathe air, young born alive ... didn't you learn anything in Fifth Form Bio?) Anyway, the young may be dependent on their parents for up to 10 years.

DoC estimate the Orca population in New Zealand at between 150 and 200 individuals. There were over 15 Orca in the pod photographed here. So, that's about 10% of all Orca in the waters around our country.

Orca watchers around the country can recognise each individual by the distinctive shape of the dorsal fin, the white 'saddle patches' behind the dorsal, and the shape of the patch behind the eye.

Watching whales and dolphins

All marine mammals are protected by law in New Zealand Fisheries Waters under the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978. Under this law only three vessels may be within a three hundred metre radius of any dolphin or group of dolphins at any one time.

You can make your whale and dolphin watching an exciting experience for you and an unobtrusive one for the dolphins by following a few simple guidelines:
  • Make sure you do not disrupt the normal behaviour of the dolphins. prolonged dives and rapid changes of direction are indications that the dolphins are unhappy.
  • Approach dolphins from a course parallel and slightly to the rear, or give them a wide berth and move well ahead of them and allow them to approach your stationary boat.
  • Avoid sudden or repeated changes in direction or speed.
  • Do not cut off their path or travel through a pod of dolphins. They are fast and agile animals but can be injured by propellers and skegs.
  • When within a 300 metre radius of a dolphin travel no faster than idle or 'no wake' speed.
  • If there are three or more vessels within a 300 metre radius of dolphins maintain your distance until one or more vessels leaves.
  • Show consideration for other vessels that may wish to observe dolphins by limiting your time with them.
  • Should the dolphins show any sign of distress or alarm abandon contact immediately.


Orca are not the only marine mammals to regularly visit the northern Tauranga Harbour.

Seals, and pods of dolphin also visit. Several years ago Humphrey the Sea Elephant was a regular sight and something of a celebrity as he travelled up the river into town. A statue of Humphrey commemorates his visits.

Sadly not all visits are a success. Some dolphin have stranded in the shallow upper reaches of the harbour, the most recent being an ailing common dolphin.

click here for photos and report.

More information can be found on the Orca Research website www.orcaresearch.org
This website has forms to download so you can report Orca sitings and help in ongoing research.

The Department of Conservation website contains more information on whales and dolphins in New Zealand and how you can help ensure their safety.

We're trying to build up a data bank of whale and dolphin sitings. Seen a whale out in the Bay between the Mount, Mayor Island and Waihi Beach? Watched dolphin, Orca or seals in the harbour? Let us know the details: whalesightings@katikati.co.nz

All pictures ©Kit Wilson and Sue Baker Wilson, taken with 300mm lens on Nikon F90 film camera and 280mm equivalent lens on Nikon 5700 digital camera, 30 August 2003. 'Stranded branch' pics taken 11 June 2004 ...

above right: Orca at play. Upsidedown with pectoral fins (flippers) and the tail flukes out of the water.

below left: Not everything that looks like an orca is one ... This dorsal fin of a 'stranded orca' silhouetted against the rising sun turned out to be branches and sea lettuce left on an outgoing tide (below right).

bottom: Cruising past Kauri Point jetty and heading back out to sea after a feed of stingray.