Orca spotted in Akaroa Harbour

More than 80 local and international passengers aboard the 1.30pm Akaroa Harbour Nature Cruise rushed for their cameras after Black Cat Cruises skipper Julian Yates sighted the pod near the Akaroa Lighthouse.

First orca pod spotted in Akaroa Harbour for 2017

10 January 2017

Black Cat Cruises staff were delighted to spot a pod of 10 orca including two young calves in Akaroa Harbour yesterday afternoon (Tuesday, 10 January).

This is the first reported sighting of orca off the coast of the South Island this month.

More than 80 local and international passengers aboard the 1.30pm Akaroa Harbour Nature Cruise rushed for their cameras after Black Cat Cruises skipper Julian Yates sighted the pod near the Akaroa Lighthouse.

“The pod of orca we came across included one alpha male, a second male with a damaged dorsal fin, four females, two juveniles and two calves that were approximately one or 2-years-old,” Yates said.

“The younger orca were curiously approaching and hanging around our cruise boat while the males stayed distant and led the pod into Daemons Bay. It was here that we found the second male that was missing part of his dorsal fin. Dorsal fins provide stability to orca when swimming but it didn’t seem to be affecting him.”

To ensure the viewing was safe and unobtrusive, Yates slowed down the catamaran at the first sighting and turned off the engines in Daemons Bay so passengers could view and marvel one of the world’s largest apex predators. The engines were also turned off when orca approached the back of the boat.

“Orca whales are very intelligent animals that are well-organised and follow highly complex social structures within their pods which often consist of large groups of family members that can span several generations,” said Yates.

While there is not a typical orca migration season in New Zealand, Black Cat Cruises usually report a number of sightings each year with the majority occurring in spring.

Staff can determine the sex of orca by analysing the mammal’s physical characteristics. Males typically grow between seven and eight metres long and weigh up to 5.5 tonnes whereas females are smaller reaching approximately six metres in length and up to 3.6 tonnes in weight. Males also have a distinctive dorsal fin up to 1.8 metres tall. The fin of females is shorter (about 0.9 metres) and more curved.

Black Cat Cruises photographer Jonothan ‘Jono’ Hithcox described the encounter as “the best orca sighting we’ve ever had” with the viewing lasting about 20 minutes.

“We imagine the orca went into the bay to hunt stingray,” he said. “On our return trip we saw a second pod that had been spotted by another boat. We weren’t sure of the size of this pod as they were travelling north very quickly. Our passengers also saw the Endangered Hector’s Dolphin on the tour so they got to see the world’s smallest and largest members of the dolphin family.”

Black Cat Cruises’ passengers aboard the 3.40pm Akaroa Harbour Nature Cruise saw two pods of orca, along with a second alpha male. The pod was described as being “even more inquisitive and playful, interacting around the boat”.

Yates recognised the second alpha male from the earlier orca sighting due to his distinct dorsal fin markings. This pod was returning to Akaroa Harbour.

The first orca of the 2016 season were sighted in Akaroa Harbour by Black Cat Cruises in October.

Black Cat Cruises was the first eco-tourism operator in Canterbury to receive a Sustainable Marine Mammal Actions in Recreation and Tourism (SMART) certification from the Department of Conservation (DOC) in 2015.

SMART is a voluntary collaboration between commercial boat operators and the DOC for the protection of marine mammals in New Zealand. It aims to promote responsible behaviour around dolphins, whales and seals by boat operators.


  • Orcas – often referred to as killer whales – are one of well-recognised animals in the world due to their large size and distinct black and white markings.
  • Orcas are the largest animal in the dolphin family and one of the only known cetaceans to attack sharks, whales and other large marine animals.
  • Having no known predators, orcas are known as an apex or alpha predator, which means it is able to hunt freely without fear of being attacked by another marine animal.
  • Orcas are protected in New Zealand waters under the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978, administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC).
  • DOC is beginning to understand that there are different types of orca throughout the world, and work on defining these types is currently underway. Even within New Zealand it has been proposed that there are three different types, based on observations of different food preferences.
  • New Zealand is home to an estimated 150–200 orca which travel long distances throughout the country’s coastal waters.
  • Black Cat Cruises has been in business for over 30 years and has enjoyed huge growth in passenger numbers over that time. In its first year in 1985 Black Cat carried less than 3000 passengers but that annual number is now over the 3.5 million mark.
  • Black Cat Cruises is backed by Queenstown-based tourism operator Real Journeys, which has a 50 per cent shareholding in the company.
  • Black Cat Cruises also operates a Diamond Harbour ferry service.

Media coverage

Stuff.co.nz  First orca of the year spotted in Akaroa Harbour delight tourists and locals


Christchurch City Council Newsline ‘Playful’ orca whales spotted in Akaroa Harbour


New Zealand Herald First orca pod spotted in Akaroa Harbour for 2017


NewstalkZB Orca pod spotted in Akaroa Harbour


RadioNZ  – Orca make a splash in Akaroa Harbour