When Funky Monkey and Pickle pay a visit

Department of Conservation —  11/05/2020

When you live on a 38ft yacht, the sounds outside your door differ somewhat to the sounds most of us are used to. That said, marine scientist Lily Kozmian-Ledward was startled by the sound of a large “blow” whilst moored up at Whangateau Harbour, north of Auckland, on 18 April. Initially thinking it might be Owha the leopard seal had paid her a midnight visit a month ago, she looked up from her work to see a huge black dorsal fin go past. Orca!

Orca/kākahi dorsal fin breaching the water.
📷: Lily Kozmian-Ledward

Lily scrambled to the deck to see a small group of orca/kākahi go by and head for the far side of the channel, most likely hunting rays which frequent our harbours and estuaries. Grabbing her camera and binoculars, Lily spotted a second group entering the harbour including two distinctive individuals she had seen several times before, both in this estuary and elsewhere in New Zealand.

This is because siblings Funky Monkey and Pickle have memorable dorsal fins. Funky Monkey is a 24-year old male orca with a wonky dorsal fin, while Pickle is a female whose dorsal fin looks as if it’s been sliced off. Together with their mother, Funky Monkey and Pickle seem to form the core of this group of nine which includes a calf, juveniles and two adult males. Their whanau reflects the complex matriarchal societies of orca where sons and daughters live with their mother throughout their lives, even after they have offspring of their own.

Funky Monkey, Pickle and pod.
📷: Lily Kozmian-Ledward

Passing right by Lily, the second group headed further up the estuary and under the causeway that connects Omaha Beach to the mainland. Cars stopped to watch the orca moving around the shallows with just their fins visible; behaviour consistent with hunting rays, a staple part of their diet. In fact, New Zealand orca are one of a kind as no other orca in the world are known to hunt rays – a practice which can sadly lead to strandings as rays congregate in shallow waters.

Orca moving around the shallows, possibly hunting rays.
📷: Lily Kozmian-Ledward

About 45 minutes later the orca family started heading back down the harbour as the tide started to go out. Some passed close by Lily’s yacht again, while others swum closer to the Omaha shoreline to the delight of an adoring, albeit dispersed (2-metre distanced) crowd.

Comments Lily, “This sighting of orca in the Whangateau estuary, in the northern region of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa Moana,is not uncommon. The orca that visit the Gulf are from the New Zealand coastal orca population that number around 150 – 200 individuals.”

We’re guessing this is just one of the many amazing experiences Lily has had as both a marine scientist and as an intrepid sailor. In 2004 she sailed from England to New Zealand via the Pacific Islands over a period of one and a half years, conducting coral reef surveys and schools workshops on marine topics and conservation with her crew. That said, she says the thrill of seeing orca up close never gets old.


3 responses to When Funky Monkey and Pickle pay a visit


    how cool is your job😃getting to know and be part of this orca whanau is uber cool.thanks for sharing such fabulous news about them😉.

    Grant Davies 15/05/2020 at 8:36 am

    awesome story & insight to Orca. I am a boaty & have seen many dolphins but have never seen Orca in the Gulf yet. Thank you for sharing this. Cheers Grant


    Beautiful story…let me know when you set sail again and need conservation workers and crew abroad;)