“I’ll never forget the first time I saw orca and looked into their eyes,” says marine adventurer Nathan Pettigrew. “It was a mother and her calf, they came and swam along underneath my kayak, staring up at me. It was at this point I realised we need to look after these creatures. They have such presence, such power. They can really change a person, there’s an aura about them that can bring a man to his knees.”
Nathan tells me his Auckland upbringing was a strictly ocean-free one, only seeing marine life through the screen of the TV: “Then we moved to Tauranga what I was 15 and I finally began to see these things for real. I got into kayaking and it all went from there.”
It was fishing from the kayak which really got Nathan, 41, hooked: “During one of my first trips some sharks appeared. All the other guys buggered off, but I hung around to take a look at them, I thought it was so exciting.” He regularly spots hammerheads, bronze whalers and makos—one of which once chased him, taking nibbles at his kayak: “That was an interesting experience, he wouldn’t let me go! But when you encounter sharks, nine times out of 10, unless there’s food around they’re just not interested, and will leave.”
It was six years ago that Nathan had his first orca interactions, including meeting one particularly memorable inquisitive young male who’s known as Pickles. “Each time you see orca, it’s mind-blowing,” says the kayaker. “There are three pods that I see regularly, and you do build a rapport with them, Pickles in particular—he’s a popular guy. I just saw him, in July.”
Now Nathan patrols the Bay of the Plenty, promoting the well-being of our seas and its inhabitants. Such is his reputation that he’s been granted a special Department of Conservation permit which allows him to get closer to the marine mammals than even the dolphin boats.
“Kayaking with a southern right whale really stands out,” says Nathan. “It was just in the harbour here. I was out there with DOC, we had to try to minimise the chance of it getting struck in the boating channel, so they went ahead to slow down the traffic and I stayed with the whale. What I didn’t realise was that these whales like to rub up against things so he kept coming right up to me. That was a pretty special moment.”
Nathan talks at primary schools and fundraisers around the region, using such anecdotes to instil the importance of looking after our beaches and our waters and all that’s in it. “Whales, dolphins and orcas need rest, they need to sleep just like us,” he says. “And it’s crucial we give them space to do so.” He drums into the children the importance of keeping a good distance of at least 50metres, and of switching off engines when the creatures are close by, hoping that the kids pass on such messages to their parents, too. The kids, of course, will be the future kayakers, and the future keepers of the seas.
I ask Nathan if he also has children.
“No,” he chuckles, “I have 11 kayaks, and those do me!”