UPDATED: With comments from the boat's skipper.
Right place, right time.
That's where a reporter likes to be right there, on the spot, when something newsworthy happens.
That happened recently to Jodi Cooke (right), a reporter with the NTV Evening Newshour, when the sailboat, upon which she was a passenger, was roughed up by a killer whale.
"It was the most unreal experience in my 29 years of sailing," Jodi Cooke said in an interview. "It ranks in the top two, the other one being rescued by the Coast Guard in PEI. But this was a little more dramatic."
Yes, roughed up' may be an exaggeration. Some scientists will dismiss the notion out of hand.
But if you listen to Cooke's account, it sounds credible. She and her friend, Dave Whelan, and their friends Kris Drodge and Amy Chislett, were near Cape St. Francis, on Drodge's sailboat the Toranga.
They were sailing along at about five-and-a-half knots, Cooke said, on the way from St. John's to Manuels. The ocean was alive with whales and even white-striped dolphins.
"Suddenly things got real calm," she said. "It went from crazy marine life activity all around the boat to things were dead calm. The wind was still going but the flurry of whale activity ended."
Then Drodge drew their attention to something light in colour, floating inert under the water. While they were staring at the object, trying to figure out what it was, something struck them from the other side.
"All of sudden like a battering ram, the side of boat gets smashed," Cooke said. "We all got jostled and took a couple of steps around inside the boat. Fortunately no one was up on the bow because, had they been, they would have gone for a swim, no doubt."
On the starboard side, where they hadn't been looking, was a large fin caught in the jib. The boat came to a sudden and complete stop. "It was like we hit a brick wall," Cooke said.
The whale's back was breached out of the water, about level with the deck of the boat, and on top of that was a massive dorsal fin.
"I would have been eye-level with the middle of the fin, so this thing was certainly as tall as I am, and I am five-foot-six," Cooke said.
"It was stuck up in the jib and it moved around. You could tell that this thing was angry, cross, I don't know, scared maybe, and it was thrashing around in our sail. It felt like it went on for an hour but the whole ordeal probably only lasted about 15 seconds. When the fin kind of slid out from behind the sail it pulled the jib line with it, then this thing rolled over away from the boat and then rolled back again, and a second time came in and throttled the boat, just smashed the boat really hard. For the four of us, I think time was standing still. I think there was this dead silence in the cockpit and we had no idea what was going to happen next or what we were just witnessing. It was unreal It must have been three times that the whale had throttled the boat with its fin and its body."
Drodge told Cooke to run below and check the bilge for signs of water. "We thought for sure the whale had blown the keel off and to my absolute and utter amazement, we weren't taking on water and were okay It was utter silence in the boat for another few minutes, until someone initiated the conversation to have a little debrief about what the hell we just saw."
One person suggested it might have been a great white shark, but the fin was too large and too black, Cooke said. "Then we all agreed that it must have been a killer whale, because it had some white on the edge of the fin. All we saw was the fin and saddle we didn't see the head or tail."
Naturally, Cooke put a story together for Monday's newscast, though to her regret she didn't pick up the videocamera to capture the event. She said everyone was too shocked to even think about it.
Cooke interviewed two ocean experts one was open to the possibility of such behavior in killer whales, while the other was a little more skeptical. But Cooke is unrepentant. She says the four of them know what they saw, and that there was certainly an element of danger in what happened. She speculates that the object that first caught their attention may have been the whale's meal a recent kill and they may have come too close. When the fin got stuck in the jib line, well, that didn't help matters.
"Maybe we were a little ignorant of the fact that there were greater things than us around the boat," she said. "But I'm telling you, if I had been out there in a 12-foot kayak and the whale had come at me that way there's no way I'd be here now."
Update: I had an email exchange with Kris Drodge, the owner of the sailboat, who feels strongly that the orca was defending something.
"I think the whale was definitely being the aggressor in this case," Drodge said. "It came towards us, headed for the bow and rammed the boat. I'm not completely sure why it would do this, but I'm with Jodi in thinking that whatever it was on the port side underneath the water had something to do with this behavior. I don't think that the effect of its fin being in the sail had any effect on its attitude, as it wasn't completely caught up - because if it was it wouldn't have taken the whale long to rip the sail to shreds. As for the repeated "bumps", I'm not sure I know why, just that he went under the boat and swam away after probably realizing we were harder than he expected. A lot of speculation I know, but even the experts don't understand it. Whatever the case, the whale was obviously protecting or defending something, and in my opinion, not reacting to the effects of hitting the boat and getting into some loose rigging. Hope this helps. By the way, there was a power boat that day that went around the cape prior to us and they reported to us when we got back to the club that they had some issues with killer whales around that area as well, but fortunately for them, not to the same effect."
Since the news item aired on NTV, Cooke said she has received several calls and emails from people describing their own encounters with killer whales. One of them, from Janet Marie Organ, described having a "run in" with killer whales in roughly the same location. I sent Janet an email asking for more information.
"We didn't actually hit the Orca, but it did come in to check us out," Janet wrote in her reply. "We were on the sailing vessel Rainbow's End in a race from St. John's to the Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club in Manuels. As we were heading north towards Cape St. Francis, I was looking for the navigation marker to round the Cape and head into Conception Bay. I spotted, what I thought to be the mark, but kept losing sight of it. As we got closer,we realized that, what I thought may have been the mark was actually a fin, obviously a very large one. Then two Killer Whales passed to our port and one took a left turn and came in to check us out. He came in under the Transom/Aft of the boat and it actually seemed liked he was just coming in for a kiss. He went a little under our Stern and out again. He never touched the boat but was very close being as "curious" about us as we were about them."
Cooke also received a note and some photos from Shona Perry-Maidment of Bloomfield, who saw a pod of killer whales while boating. These photos were taken on July 13, just a few days ago. (Click on the thumbnail to see the larger image.)
"These pictures show a pod of Orcas just off Long Island, Bonavista Bay (South)," Shona writes. "There were at least eight of them feeding. There is no doubt that these were Orcas. Not only did we note the long dorsal fins but we were able to see their distinct white markings up close when at least one went just a few feet under our boat while another followed our wake just 15 or so feet off our boat. It was amazing!"
Amazing, yes. After Jodi Cooke's experience, perhaps slightly intimidating too.
Has anybody else had an encounter, up close and personal, with a killer whale in local waters? If so, please send your stories and photos to geoff_meeker(at)yahoo.ca for a possible future post.