Close Encounters Man vs. Nature

Spectacular orca show ‘like fireworks on 4th of July’

British Columbia tour guide captures dozens of stunning photos; says he has not seen anything like it in 40-plus years on the water

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Visitors to marine parks have watched orcas perform all kinds of cute and fun tricks, but these sleek and powerful mammals perform their greatest acrobatics in the wild, without artificial stimulus. Capt. Garry Henkel of Aboriginal Journeys proved this emphatically with a spectacular set images captured last week off Campbell River, British Columbia.

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But even Henkel said he had never enjoyed a show quite like this one. “I’ve been on the water 40 years as a commercial fisherman, and the past 15 as a tour guide,” he said. “And this was by far the best show I’ve ever seen.”

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Henkel was leading a tour with eight passengers aboard a 28-foot boat, Laker II, on the back side of Quadra Island, when they encountered two family groups of orcas—about 12 total.

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After about 30 minutes, five or six of the orcas decided to get playful. They breached repeatedly and Henkel, who was shooting from more than 300 feet away with a 600-millimeter lens, ended up with dozens of stunning photos.

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The photos can be viewed on the Aboriginal Journeys Facebook page. (One sequence is featured here, with the exception of the last photo, which is part of a sequence in which the orcas are photographed breaching head-on, toward the camera.)

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“One of the passengers said it was like fireworks on the 4th of July,” Henkel said. “It was that kind of excitement, I guess, with the orcas flying out of the water and all the explosive splashing.”

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It was the type of encounter rarely seen by researchers, much less day tourists. But Campbell River is situated in a special place in terms of wildlife in and out of the water—Aboriginal Journeys also features grizzly bear tours.

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Henkel, however, said the only orca sighting that rivals last Wednesday’s spectacle was the time he witnessed the formation of a super pod of about 100 orcas. But he was a fisherman then, without passengers.

The captain explained that Aboriginal Journeys’ motto is to fulfill dreams for tourists. Of Wednesday’s encounter he said, “I fulfilled a lot of people’s dreams that day.” Then Henkel corrected himself. “Actually, nature fulfilled their dreams. I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

--Hat tip to Tim Zimmermann (we chose the same incredible images after seeing Zimmermann’s post and sifting through Capt. Garry Henkel’s photos on Facebook, then got the scoop from Henkel).

–Find Pete Thomas on Facebook and Twitter