Eleele man films orcas by Niihau

KEKAHA — What seemed like a typical fishing trip for Kyle Ruiz turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime encounter for the Eleele resident.

Ruiz and his three partners — Ross Ruiz, Tommy Simao and Cody Deponte — saw something large in the water as they headed to a bird pile on their way to Niihau on Sunday afternoon.

“We thought (it) was false killers, but we looked real good and they were big whales,” Ruiz said. “We saw the white on their faces. We knew it was real killer whales.”

He said they saw at least a dozen of them.

“It felt unreal. We couldn’t believe it. We had to double check,” he said. “We took videos and we were just amazed on just how big they were. We was all tripping out.”

The crew stopped their boat, and the whales cruised close by.

“In the beginning it was cool, but when they came real close, I’m not going to lie, I was a little bit scared,” he said.

Ruiz sent The Garden Island video footage of the whales he saw on Sunday and later in the distance Monday morning.

“They were not aggressive at all,” said the 27-year-old who has been fishing since he was eight. “It was a once and a lifetime thing. I hope to see it again. That was amazing.”

Sightings like these are becoming more frequent, said David Schofield, NOAA’s regional marine mammal response program coordinator.

“It seems like it’s turning into an annual or semi-annual event to see small numbers of animals cruising by,” he said. “For two years in a row, we’ve had them off of Makaha on Oahu and last year we had them up in Haleiwa. It’s still a blessed thing to see.”

Officials with NOAA do not have an explanation for why these whales come to islands, but the most plausible explanation is they’re passing through.

“What we do know is that there aren’t large aggregations of big fish close to shore, and we don’t believe they’re feeding on marine mammals. They could be feeding on dolphins,” Schofield said. “In all these reports that we get … the animals seem to just be cruising. There wasn’t no indication of feeding.”

The whales also seem to know their way around the islands, he said.

“They seem to behaving normally and in a healthy manner. They look like they’re in healthy body condition,” he said. “Whatever they’re doing here, they’re not lost. They’re moving to a certain place. If we saw killer whales out here and they were all skinny, we’d say they were way off course.”

Robin Baird, research biologist for Cascadia Research Collective, identified four killer whales in the video: an adult male and three others.

“So far in Hawaii, we have photos of 32 different individuals and just one group has been re-sighted — one individual in a group of four — and all the other ones have only been seen on a single occasion,” he said.

The whales are part of an open-ocean population, he said.

“Killer whales are one of the species, instead of having a resident population, they’re just moving throughout the islands and offshore,” he said. “They’re passing through, but they may come back in six months to year or two years. They’re not migratory like humpback whales. They just have a wide range.”

The claim of a dozen whales would be an uncommon sighting, he said. “If he saw that many that would be unusual for that size group in Hawaii,” he said. “The largest group I know of that’s been documented in Hawaii is seven individuals.”

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