After filming a story on interacting with marine mammals in the Poor Knights, Lucas de Jong didn’t think he would have the pleasure of a close encounter so soon after. But while his story research paid off, for others it was a nightmare.

It was one of those beach days that qualifies as peak summer.

The kids and I were working on an epic beach swimming pool as my wife could be heard screeching with the joy that only a newly unwrapped boogie board could provide. In front of us was nothing but clear blue water reaching out towards a cloudless sky.

And then we heard the lifeguard shout: “Out of the water! Out of the water!”

If recent headlines are anything to go by, we immediately jumped to the most logical conclusion: Sharks. They have been spotted all over New Zealand this summer causing beach closures for days at a time.

On this day, however, we were in for a much more scenic spectacle — a pod of orca.

The calves dipped below the breakers as their much larger parents sat out behind the waves. It was incredible. A moment of natural wonder for everyone — from this 35-year-old who grew up on these sands to his 4 and 5-year-old kids who for the first time in real life experienced the magic of our marine mammals.

It’s the stuff life-long memories are made of and for us it was positive. For the family kayaking behind the breakers, it was terrifying.

They couldn’t hear the lifeguards. They couldn’t see the smiles on our kids’ faces. All they saw was a fin and jumped to the same conclusion I had. Then they panicked.

Three teenagers and their dad turned for shore but as they did he lost his balance and fell into the water.

The kids’ hands shot up signalling for help and thanks to some fast-acting Ōpōtiki lifeguards and a few locals, all three were quickly pulled from the water.

‘They need to interact and socialise’

According to Department of Conservation marine xpert Clinton Duffy, these are the kinds of interactions that Kiwis need to know how to handle.

“More and more of these tropical species are surviving over the winter time and establishing populations around Northern New Zealand,” he said.

Whether it’s an increasing turtle population or a chance encounter with a manta ray — the rules are always the same.

“They are wild animals and they are quite scared of human beings. Even quite large animals like sharks are scared of human beings,” Duffy said.

“They need to feed. They need to get where they are going and they need to breed. They need to interact and socialise.”

While space is important, Duffy said the best thing we can do is nothing.

“The best thing you can do is be calm, pretend you are not interested in them and there is a good chance they will come up and have a look at you. You just have to give these species the space they need to behave how they normally would.”

I never got the family’s name but I’ve often thought about how different our interactions with those orca were. The youngest sitting in the sand with tears streaming down her face struggling to control her breathing. She was adamant it was a shark.

I don’t know if she was right but I do know she wouldn’t have gone back in the water that day. Or maybe the day after. I do hope she gets another chance to experience the wonder that is our marine wildlife because it is, in every sense of the word, magical.

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