Nfld. & Labrador

'It really upset us and scared us': Burgeo fisherman's boat bumped by killer whales

Burgeo fisherman had a scary experience Saturday when five or six orca whales surrounded his 18-foot fibreglass boat.

67-year-old man says he has never seen anything like it

Fisherman Norman Strickland says five or six orcas surrounded his boat Saturday morning. (Norman Stirckland)

A Burgeo fisherman survived a scary experience Saturday when a group of orca whales surrounded his 18-foot boat.

Norman Strickland was with his daughter and dog Saturday morning when he saw the animals. He said they left the shore at around 10:30 a.m., and after travelling about half a nautical mile, saw a dorsal fin moving slowly in the water about 150 feet away.

Strickland estimates there were 5 or 6 killer whales around his 18-foot boat. (Norman Strickland)

At first he thought the fin belonged to a blue shark, but when the fin disappeared a school of five or six orcas came out of the water.

When he saw the white on their bodies, he knew they were killer whales.

"I figured we were the next victims of those orcas." - Norman Strickland

"They aren't playful creatures I can tell you that, they are very, very frightening," Strickland told CBC Radio's On the Go.

"I was really, really scared."

Norman Strickland's daughter had her phone on hand to catch images of the killer whales. (Submitted by Norman Strickland)

Jack Lawson, a whale researcher for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), said an encounter like Strickland's is very rare.

In an interview on Monday, Lawson said he has gone through more than 1,000 reports of killer whales off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador - and only four detail a person being struck or chased by an orca.

"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."

A real fright

The orcas surrounded Strickland's boat, preventing him from changing direction.

"We were among those bloody things for probably 30 minutes and we probably travelled a mile and a half with them all around us," he said.

Strickland thinks the orcas thought his white boat was an iceberg — and that he, his daughter and his dog were seals.

Lawson said orcas are extremely interested in boats and often act like dolphins, bobbing around the fronts and sides.

They are "pretty smart predators" with good vision, so Lawson doesn't suspect the orcas thought Stirkland and his family were seals.

"I don't think they would've mistaken them for a meal, but they certainly could've been very interested in them," Lawson said.

This is 67-year-old Strickland's first experience with killer whales, after many years spent on the water. (Norman Strickland)

The fisherman had life jackets on board but was hesitant to put them on, despite the whales bumping the boat with enough force to make them stagger.

"Because if you were thrown into the water, those things were going to eat you anyway," he said.

"From what I've seen on Google, those things just tear other things apart...I figured we were the next victims of those orcas."

Strickland says the closest the orcas got to his boat is about two feet. (Norman Stirckland)

Strickland said he doesn't believe they were being friendly, as they were bumping his boat so aggressively.

He warns those who go fishing or kayaking to be careful when they're out on the water.

"For those people that go out kayaking, I think those people are in very serious trouble if those [orcas] come around...those things are very huge, I would judge probably 14 [or] 15 feet long, perhaps longer," he said.

"I was too scared to really know what the lengths were. But I don't want to ever go out and see them again."

Stirckland, his daughter and their dog made it to shore safely after being surrounded by killer whales east of Burgeo. (Norman Strickland)

Strickland said he's seen sharks, blue whales and dolphins while on the water, but has never experienced anything like this before.

Eventually the boat got close enough to land, Strickland estimates about 50 feet away, that the orcas left. Strickland, his daughter and the dog all made it safely to shore.

"If there's anybody going out fishing, be very, very cautious. Always keep your eyes open," he said.

While Lawson said killer whales are more prevalent in some areas of the province than others, they can travel hundreds of kilometres over the course of the summer. 

With his interest in whales, Lawson said he has been trying to have an encounter like Strickland's, but admits that in a small boat, such an extraordinary experience would be scary.

"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 to have a group of animals around them," he said.

"And I think Mr. Strickland took the right strategy in this case where he was worried about them and he moved towards the shoreline close enough that the animals broke off and left them alone, that's probably a good strategy."

Strickland says the orcas were around and ahead of his boat, preventing him from changing direction. (Norman Strickland)