It was hazy out on the water Sunday afternoon when Captain Jerry Leeman walked to the back of his boat, the Teresa Marie IV, and saw the large fin slicing through the ocean’s surface.
At first, the low visibility made him think it was probably a shark. But then the animal’s dorsal fin kept getting larger.
“It just kept coming out of the water, and when it breached it had a 6-foot dorsal on him,” said Leeman, who was with his five-person crew chasing haddock. “I thought, ‘That’s not a goddamn shark now, is it?’”
Leeman was one of two fishermen in the waters off Cape Cod on Sunday afternoon who took video and photographs of a large orca — better known as a killer whale — swimming nearby. The sightings were roughly a half-hour apart, and given the relative proximity of the boats it was likely the same animal.
While orca sightings off the coast of New England are uncommon, the apex predators have made their presence known before, including in the waters near Cape Cod, marine experts said Tuesday.
Leeman, 40, said the orca that his crew spotted was roughly 20 feet long, and swam near his 95-foot vessel for “a good half hour,” putting on a show.
“He came alongside the boat and was kind of just checking us out,” he said. “It got alongside the boat about 15 feet and was kind of just easing along with us as we were towing. Then he just kind of went off on his own.”
Leeman, who lives in Maine, said it was just the sixth time he’s seen an orca off the coast of Massachusetts in his 21 years as a fisherman.
“It’s one of those things you don’t usually see a lot,” said Leeman, who estimated they were about 48 miles east of Nantucket when they saw the orca. “It’s a rarity.”
Leeman took a one-minute, narrated video of the orca and later posted it to Facebook. By Tuesday morning, the clip had been shared more than 3,000 times and racked up hundreds of comments.
In the video, the orca’s dorsal fin can be seen rising above the water before slowly descending below the surface.
“There’s literally a frickin’ killer whale beside the boat,” Leeman shouts over the noise of his vessel. “You don’t see this every day, folks.”
Killer whale apex predator of the sea. Just awesome total bad @$$. Following along with us checking us out.Posted by Jerry Leeman on Sunday, May 15, 2022
Across the water, Asher Molyneaux, a skipper aboard the Finlander II, a 47-foot-vessel out of Maine, was also able to behold the creature up close. Molyneaux, 20, was below deck when a crew member roused him from sleep to let him know it was time to haul back the scallop dredge.
“When I came up he says, ‘I think we have an orca,’” nearby, he said. “I had never heard of an orca being around here, so we were all fairly confused. We weren’t sure if it was an escapee from SeaWorld or what.”
But there it was, swimming with about six or seven dolphins about 200 feet away.
“There was no confusing it with anything else, there’s nothing else that looks like that,” said Molyneaux, who was scalloping roughly 40 miles southeast of Cape Cod. “It was swimming around us for about 15 minutes.”
Molyneaux took pictures that were later posted to Facebook by New England Fishmongers, the group for whom he runs a boat. Molyneaux said some people who commented on the post, which was shared more than 2,000 times, speculated that the orca could have been “Old Thom,” a killer whale that has become something of a legend in New England waters, with scattered sightings from Nova Scotia to Cape Cod.
Spotted by Skipper Asher… an orca whale off Cape Cod! Not something you see every day while out scalloping…Posted by New England Fishmongers on Monday, May 16, 2022
In July of 2016, Old Thom, who is about 30 feet long and weighs eight tons, was spotted about 13 miles northeast of Chatham. The following month, a pod of female killer whales was also seen off Chatham.
Experts from the New England Aquarium said while the images taken by Molyneaux showed an adult male orca, they were unable to identify it by name.
“New England Aquarium scientists have seen a male orca in the Bay of Fundy along the Maine and Canadian border on many occasions over the years. We have also seen small pods of orcas in the Bay of Fundy in past decades,” Amy Knowlton, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, said in a statement. “And we see orca tooth marks on right whales on occasion. So while orca sightings are not common, they are not unusual.”
Still, Molyneaux said the experience was “wicked cool.”
“We were thinking about it the whole rest of the trip,” he said.
Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.