Orca and Little Blues in the Channel

Completed 6 March 2019.

Orca and Little Blue Penguins in the Tiritiri Matangi Channel
Orca and Little Blue Penguins in the Tiritiri Matangi Channel, Acrylic on canvas mount, 60 x 90 cm (24 x 36 inches)
Detail 1
Detail 1
Detail 2
Detail 2


Tiritiri Matangi Island is a wildlife sanctuary run by the Department of Conservation (DOC). New Zealand endemic wildlife consists primarily of birds with low numbers of reptiles and amphibians, so “Tiri” island is known essentially as a bird sanctuary. You can access the island by boat or by booking a day ferry trip.

I find the bird calls especially interesting…
Prehistoric Aotearoa (New Zealand) was a forested land with so many birds that early Europeans spoke of not being able to talk in the forests because of the ambient birdcall noise. The Maori made a minor impact on these forests, but Europeans harvested them industrially and cleared land for farming. As a result, the birds’ forest habitat is now minimal, and in the suburbs, we encounter and hear primarily exotic birds.
So when we visit Tiri, we hear birdcalls from prehistoric Aotearoa that we don’t hear on the mainland. The birds sound especially melodic as we paddle along the shore of Tiri with calm, quiet, glassy sea conditions in the early morning.


Orca pass through the Tiritiri Matangi Channel when moving up or down the coastal Hauraki Gulf.  I’ve only encountered them once, where the Channel rounds the corner towards Army Bay. New Zealand has as few as 200 Orca, but they are big, visible and iconic for all coastal Kiwi communities. They feature in the news, media, Youtube, and social media. Our home area of Whangaparaoa translates to “Bay of the Whales”, which may possibly refer to Orca.

Little Blue Penguins

For us, these are the characters of the Channel. They are the world’s smallest penguins (and surely the cutest). They are tiny compared to the African Penguins that we know. Australians have named them Fairy Penguins. I’ve held one that I rescued from my kayak, when it had a hook and trailing line in its mouth. I was surprised at how small its wings were as they struck me frantically. It’s last act as I released it back into the water without the hook was to bite me on the hand and then flee while looking back malevolently over its shoulder.

(Wikipedia) Little Blue Penguins exiting a burrow
(Wikipedia) Little Blue Penguins exiting a burrow

Little Blue Penguins have a distinctive “aah aah” call that they seem to use as “where are you?” when they’ve become separated from each other. In mating season the Channel can be relatively noisy in places with calls that include a type of bray, similar to a “Jackass” penguin (listen to the Little Blues here, courtesy of Wikipedia).
When baitfish are around, we see groups of up to six penguins hunting together. I’ve also seen them moving one-behind-the-other in a straight line on the surface (purpose of this activity unknown). On Tiri itself, DOC has built penguin nest-boxes above the high tide mark, within the edge of the forest, to facilitate breeding. These boxes have a glass/acrylic panel through which you can look at a brooding parent.

NOTE: Little Blue Penguins are best known internationally through the real-life story of a farmer training dogs to protect a colony of them against ravening foxes in Australia. See here for the story.

A rare bird

Sue and I paddled from Army bay across to Tiri early one morning, parked the kayaks on Hobbs Beach, a beautiful little West-facing sandy beach, and strolled up a hill to a bench where we sat and chugged a few liters of water. Hopping about in a tree right next to us was a pair of strange-looking birds whose behaviour reminded me of the Knysna and Purple-crested Louries in Africa. They were grey with black beaks, black facial masks, and distinct blue wattles. Like many birds on Tiri, they showed no fear of humans. When we later saw the ferry approaching from the direction of Gulf Harbour, we paddled off to the Northern side of the island, to another pretty sandy beach, knowing that the ferry would spew forth day-hikers and birdwatchers, When the birdwatchers eventually caught up with us, the first question one of them asked was, “Have you seen the Kokako?” I must’ve looked baffled because he followed up with “They’ve been reintroduced here, and our group mission today is to try and see or photograph them… grey birds with blue wattles.” We explained our earlier sighting, which sent everyone racing excitedly back towards Hobbs Beach.

So here is the North Island Kokako, courtesy of Wikipedia.

And here is the DOC page on the Kokako recovery plan (with nice photos)

The conservation status is “at risk, recovering”, with an estimated 1600 pairs.


Preliminary conception of this painting
On 6 Feb I posted preliminary images of this painting:

[PRELIM] On the Easel – Orca and Little Blues in the Channel
Orca And little Blues in the Channel
[PRELIM] Orca and Little Blues in the Channel, Acrylic on canvas mount, 60 x 90 cm (24 x 36 inches)
I’ve now modified this original conception:

  • I felt that the Orcas were too crowded and too uniform in their presentation, so I cut the number down to three and changed their action.
  • I also needed to modify the island as my memory of it had only been good for our regular haunt around the Northern (left) end, and I’d also painted it too low in profile.

Pohutukawa Orca

On the easel / under construction as at 6 Feb 2019.

Click for a larger image:

In progress early Feb – sponging the Pohutukawa flowers

Pohutukawa Orca, Acrylic, on canvas mount, 76 x 101 cm / 30 x 40 inches
[PRELIM] Pohutukawa Orca, Acrylic, on canvas mount, 76 x 101 cm (30 x 40 inches.)
This painting illustrates a quintessentially New Zealand scene that does not occur in any other country:

  • The glorious flowering Pohutukawa tree (Metrosideros excelsa) is an icon of the New Zealand summer and is nationally included in postcards, paintings, and other “kiwiana”  memorabilia. A coastal tree that flowers in bright red over the December-January holiday period, it often grows so close to the ocean that its branches and flowers overhang the water.
  • New Zealand Orca are unique in their culture of hunting rays and skates in shallow water, including shorelines, harbours, estuaries, and even tidal rivers.

I haven’t actually seen an Orca passing a flowering Pohutukawa tree, but I reasoned that it must happen… I was fishing at the base of a cliff near the mouth of the Weiti River,  which borders the south side of the  Whangaparaoa (“Bay of Whales”) Peninsula. Partially hanging over me was a large Pohutukawa tree in flower. At my feet was a stingray feeding in the warm shallows on the incoming tide. I realised that summer stingrays coincide with summer Pohutukawa flowering. Therefore Orca must pass overhanging flowering Pohutukawa trees as they hunt stingrays in shallow water throughout the North Island, just as they do (rarely) in the Weiti River.

Examples of Pohutukawas hanging over water

Here are some examples from just a few of the bays of my home area:

Sue paddling near Okura on the high tide
Pohutukawa hanging over the sand at low tide
I can’t even remember which cliff – this could be any on our peninsula over the summer months

Orca are “cultural” mammals

(Not culture as in music and art, but as in a body of knowledge passed through generations)

Culture is such a determining factor in the lives of Orca that some cultures don’t mix, even though they are the same species inhabiting the same areas of ocean. For example, genetic evidence suggests that “transient” mammal-hunting Orca off North America have not interbred with the “resident” coastal fish-hunting Orca for nearly a million years, although they must frequently cross paths and are fully capable of interbreeding.

Orca are the largest of the dolphins (small toothed whales). Possibly more so than other dolphins, they are “cultural” animals, meaning that the strategies and behaviours of the Orca pod are educationally (not genetically) passed on from generation to generation in an unbroken cultural chain. So if we transported a pod of Icelandic Orca to New Zealand, they would not know how to hunt stingrays. If we “cut” the cultural parent-calf educational chain of New Zealand Orca, the uneducated youth would also not know how to hunt stingrays. And if we released a captive-bred Sea World Orca in New Zealand, it also would not know how to hunt stingrays, or any other fish or mammal. By contrast, a shark is a non-cultural animal – it has a genetic blueprint on how to hunt, so after birth, it does not need to learn from a parent.

The same cultural continuity (and potential discontinuity) is evidenced in humans. In a single urbanised generation of African San (“Bushmen”) the accumulated hunter-gatherer herbal wisdom of some 180 000 years was lost, likely irretrievably, because before urbanisation they were a preliterate people and their extensive knowledge had never been thoroughly documented.

Orca culture of stingray-hunting

Globally, Orca have learned that when flipped upside down, sharks, skates, rays, and sawfish (the Elasmobranchs) go into a state of “tonic immobility”, a hypnotic, trance-like state where they barely move or respond. This peculiarity enables Orca to feed on a range of Elasmobranchs, from stingrays and small sharks all the way up to 4-metre White Sharks.

In New Zealand, their speciality is stingrays. The stingrays seem to be very aware of the Orca threat – while diving I’ve seen stingrays tucked under ledges, and strangely, inside close-fitting potholes. The potholes they choose are deep and narrow enough to block a large Orca head and jaw, but it must take some nerve to lie still while those big teeth are bared just centimetres away. It takes a lot to move them out of their safe holes. I’ve had to resort to touching them with the speargun before they take off in a flutter.

Orca typically roll upside down before approaching a stingray, grab the stingray and then immediately roll right-way-up, leaving the stingray inverted and catatonically immobile. This prevents the stingray thrashing and stabbing its barbed tail spike into the Orca (note that the tail spike is large – the legendary Steve Irwin very sadly met an early end when a stingray spiked him multiple times in the chest and heart).

Stingray hunting is risky:

  • Orca roll upside down in shallow water, where a many tons of weight on a non-repairing cartilaginous Orca dorsal fin could do permanent damage.
    This may explain why New Zealand Orca have the highest percentage damaged dorsal fins in the world, as noted by New Zealand’s Orca Research Trust  – http://www.orcaresearch.org.
    If so, male Orca with their dorsal fins of up to 1.8 metres may suffer more damage than female Orca.
  • The dangers of shallow-water stingray hunting are also evidenced by New Zealand Orca having the highest Orca-stranding rates in the world, as noted by the Orca Research Trust.

More info online:

Youtube Search: “NZ Orca hunting stingrays”

Note on White Shark hunting: 

For many years a pair of male Orca in the south of Southern Africa have killed large Great White sharks and “surgically” removed and ate just their fat-rich livers. This predation on White Sharks is neither unique nor recent and it has been documented in multiple regions. Both electronic shark-tracking in North America and anecdotal evidence in South Africa show that White Sharks flee immediately from a site where Orca kill one of their kind, and they stay away from the area for weeks or months. In other words, White Sharks are seriously afraid of Orca.
Youtube Search: “Orcas hunt Great White Sharks in South Africa”