KETCHIKAN - Whale researchers say it was highly unusual, but a killer whale on Saturday charged and bumped a 12-year-old boy splashing in shallow water.
Ellis Miller found himself face-to-face with an orca in 4 feet of water Saturday in Helm Bay, near Ketchikan. The animal, estimated to be more than 25 feet long, bumped but did not bite him.
"I looked underwater and there was this huge head right in front of me," Ellis told the Ketchikan Daily News.
Biologists said the whale may have been curious or it may have aborted an attack.
"If it had wanted to take him, it would have," said Gary Freitag, volunteer coordinator with the National Marine Fisheries Service's Marine Mammal Stranded Network.
"I suspect that the whale that approached thought he was a harbor seal splashing," said John Ford, a researcher of killer whales with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans' Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, British Columbia.
"He's about the first person I know of that's actually been approached and touched," said Craig Matkin, a Homer-based marine biologist and co-director of the North Gulf Oceanic Society.
There has never been a documented fatal killer whale attack on a human. The only relatively well-documented bite was one suffered by a surfer in California in the early 1970s.
Saturday was calm and sunny as the Miller family joined Ron and Kathy Arntzen in an outing at a U.S. Forest Service cabin. Ellis' parents, Kevin and Nettie Miller, were aboard their boat at the dock and Ron Arntzen was on another nearby boat.
Kathy Arntzen kayaked to a beach on an island about 75 yards away from the dock. Ellis Miller followed a few minutes later, swimming across the flat water with swim fins and a kick board.
At the island, Ellis dove underwater and splashed near the beach while Kathy Arntzen stood nearby in knee-to waist-deep water.
As he swam underwater, Ellis said, he heard a "boom" that sounded like a gun.
"I heard that one big sound twice and I thought that, well, maybe the guy just missed his first shot," Ellis said.
He asked Kathy Arntzen whether she heard it. Arntzen replied she'd heard something, but just barely.
Ellis stood up in water about chest high. Arntzen said she was stunned to see a dorsal fin more than 6 feet tall break the water's surface a few yards behind Ellis.
The orca, Arntzen said, dwarfed the boy. She began to yell.
Over on the boat, Kevin Miller could see the killer whale heading toward his son.
"Seeing (Ellis) swimming over there and seeing this pressure wave and this fin, this huge fin come up right behind him, it was just amazing," he said.
Ellis turned and saw the dorsal fin. Then he was underwater facing the whale's head.
"I turned around, HUH! And it's there," he said.
The whale bumped Ellis on the left side of his chest and shoulder, then arched around him.
"Ellis was in the middle and he was totally surrounded," Kathy Arntzen said.
She reached forward and grabbed Ellis as the pressure wave caused by the whale's rapid advance swept them toward the beach.
"Within a second we were on the shore," Kathy said. "We got out fast."
The episode lasted about five seconds, they said.
As the orca returned to deeper water, another six killer whales surfaced near the beach.
The killer whales swam along the beach for a hundred yards or so and then returned. They swam back and forth several times. On the last pass, the largest orca rolled onto its side, raised a pectoral fin and smacked the water about five times. Then it hit the water with its tail. The other whales followed in a line and began doing the same.
"It was like the whole bay was boiling at this point," Kathy Arntzen said. "They were up and down and making noise. ... It was like they were signaling us."
Ten minutes after they arrived, the killer whales were gone.
Ford and Matkin studied digital photographs and a short video taken by Kevin Miller. The fin shapes strongly suggest a transient pod, they said.
If the pod was transient, the incident more likely was an aborted attack rather than curiosity, they said.
Transients hunt by stealth, poking around bays and other quiet spots looking for harbor seals, Ford said.
Transient whales can use echolocation to identify prey, but usually use it subtly because their marine mammal prey are smart and hear well.
"It was likely a transient that thought, up until the last moment, that it had a seal in the shallows," Matkin said.
The whale might have gotten close enough to see the boy, realized he was not prey and broken off the attack, Ford said.
Ford said killer whales slap tails and fins to express emotions at different levels and contexts. The behavior here was perhaps triggered by what the whales themselves likely perceived as an odd occurrence, he said.