Did a Wild Orca Really Attack a Diver in New Zealand?

Marine mammal experts aren't so sure.

(Photo: Don Johnson/Getty Images)

Feb 24, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

An orca dragged a diver in New Zealand below the ocean's surface for more than 40 seconds earlier this month, a newspaper in that country reported Sunday. Though local media characterized the harrowing incident as an “attack,” many people who work with wild orcas are not so sure.

On Feb. 10, free diver Levi Gavin, 23, was collecting crayfish and sea urchins in Horahora Estuary, near the city of Whangarei in far northern New Zealand, when a killer whale grabbed a catch bag tethered to his arm and yanked him into the sea.

The diver thought he’d taken his last breath. “I went to go open my eyes but all I could see was little white bubbles so I just closed my eyes and tried not to use my energy,” he said to The New Zealand Herald.

But the rope came loose, and Gavin, after removing his weight belt, floated to the surface. Aside from temporary numbness in his arm, Gavin was uninjured.

So was it an attack? Many experts are skeptical.

“I think it's been a pure accident and not an attack of any kind,” Jo Halliday, cofounder of New Zealand’s Whale Rescue, told The Herald.

The cetacean was probably “panicked from the feel of the line and the man got dragged along with it,” she added. Local orcas have occasionally grabbed bags in the past, she said, but she doubted this was a case of “whale attacks man.”

Halliday speculated the whale itself may have severed the line, and noted that when Gavin’s bag floated to the surface, it was dragged back down underwater. “There was a real concern the orca could still have the line attached,” The Herald reported.

It’s also possible that the whale was simply playing with an unexpected toy.

“There's a lot of room for interpretation in terms of the whale's intentions,” Howard Garrett, cofounder of the Orca Network in Washington state, wrote in an email. “According to the story, the whale never actually touched the guy.”

The article doesn’t indicate the length of the rope, “so we don't know the distance between him and the orca, but he says there were too many little white bubbles to be able to see,” Garrett said. “Those bubbles would also block sound, and the whale would have been headed away from the guy, so it's possible the whale didn't know there was a human attached to the bag. Or maybe the whale didn't care if the human went down.”

It would also be useful, Garrett added, to know what was in Gavin’s catch bag and how his arm was freed.

The truth is, orcas simply do not attack people in the ocean. As I wrote in Death at SeaWorld, a mammal-eating transient orca bit the leg of a Northern California surfer in 1972, then immediately let go. It’s possible the animal mistook the surfer’s wet suit for some kind of odd seal but was not interested in human flesh. The victim, who required 100 stitches, is the only known human to be injured by a wild orca.

Dr. Ingrid Visser, founder of New Zealand’s Orca Research Trust, has routinely dived with and photographed killer whales for years and has never experienced any type of aggression, even though New Zealand orcas sometimes attack and feed on marine mammals such as seals and dolphins to supplement their preferred diet of rays.

Only one person has ever been injured by a wild orca, but whales in captivity are another story entirely. Four people have been killed, and about a dozen more seriously injured, by orcas at marine-themed parks like SeaWorld.

Critics say it's the stress of captivity that leads to orca aggression, an assertion the industry rejects. It will be interesting to see if SeaWorld comments on the New Zealand incident and claims that this was, indeed, an attack on a human by a wild killer whale.