DIVE PRACTICUM – Dive student Karson Winslow hands a discarded garden hose to SCUBA instructor Haleigh Damron, standing on the dock, at Crescent Harbor this afternoon. The University of Alaska Southeast Sitka Campus Dive Team is clearing trash from the harbor floor under floats 5, 6 and 7 as part of their instruction. Fourteen student divers are taking part this year. This is the fifth year the dive team has volunteered to clean up Sitka harbors. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

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Orca Assault Shakes Up Boaters at Biorka

Victor Littlefield holds up a cellphone video of an orca whale pulling a line off his boat Sunday. (Sentinel Photo By James Poulson)

By BRIELLE SCHAEFFER
Sentinel Staff Writer
    Victor Littlefield, his 14-year-old son and two of his son’s friends were on his 33-foot aluminum boat Sunday as it lay anchored near Little Biorka Island when the boat suddenly lurched violently to one side.
    Littlefield’s first thought was that he was being attacked by a great white shark.
    “I had just watched ‘Jaws’ the day before,” he said.
    But it wasn’t a shark. It was a killer whale, which had just rammed the side of the boat.
    The orca hit the boat several times before it grabbed the anchor line and yanked on it, moving the boat around and then swimming toward the boat and slapping the bow with its tail.
    “I was pretty much in shock,” Littlefield said. “I couldn’t believe it was actually happening.”
    Littlefield was out fishing with his son Hunter and his two friends when the incident occurred. They had just anchored up and had landed a rockfish.
    When the orca attacked, one of the boys was able to get some of it on video, and Littlefield posted it on the Facebook page Sitka Chatters Sunday. In the video, the black and white whale is seen swimming around his boat with the anchor line in its mouth. After Littlefield was able to clip a buoy onto the line the whale tugged it out of his hands.
    “There was some cursing,” he said. “I thought it would rip the bow down.”
    Before Littlefield was able to attach a buoy to the anchor line, the orca had pulled the rope so taut he couldn’t untie it from its cleat. Littlefield ended up taking out more line from the anchor box to release the tension. The whale took the line, got tangled in it and released it a few times.
    “I was able to clip a buoy onto the anchor as it took off with it,” he said.
    When the whale wouldn’t let go, Littlefield considered shooting it, but he dropped that idea, figuring it wouldn’t have much effect.
    “I never harassed it in any way,” he said.
    The whole encounter lasted only a few minutes, before the whale swam away with the anchor line, he said. They eventually recovered the anchor.
    “Today I think it was cool but definitely at the time I was afraid it was going to take us down,” he said.
    Fortunately, Littlefield said, no one was injured and his vessel was OK.
    “It lost some paint but there was no damage to the boat,” he said.
    When he went fishing on Sunday, Littlefield thought he was ready for anything.
    “I was prepared for bears, injury and storm but not prepared for that,” he said.
    “I had no idea what to do. You just don’t plan on killer whales attacking a boat.”
    Littlefield said he has had previous encounters with orcas while out fishing but none of those were aggressive like the one on Sunday.
    “It was an assault on the boat,” he said.
    Al Duncan, assistant special agent in charge of NOAA Fisheries Law Enforcement in Sitka, said he hasn’t come across any instances of aggressive orcas like this one. There have been some reports of orcas going after commercial longline fishing boats for food but this one was attacking a vessel.
    “It wasn’t trying to steal a meal, which is normally the behavior we’re familiar with,” Duncan said.
    He said Littlefield did the right thing by trying to remove himself and his boat from the situation.
    “It’s very rare,” he said about what happened. “With killer whales there has never been a recorded incident with a fatality in the wild.”
    Littlefield posted the video of the encounter online as a cautionary tale, he said. His 11,000-pound aluminum boat held up to the orca, he said, but a smaller vessel or a wooden boat probably wouldn’t have stood a chance, he said.
    “I wanted people to be aware it’s a possibility,” Littlefield said. “It’s always an adventure out there but this wasn’t one I was prepared to deal with.”

 

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20 YEARS AGO

April 2004

Photo caption: Sitka High students in the guitar music class gather in the hall before the school’s spring concert. The concert was dedicated to music instructor Brad Howey, who taught more than 1,000 Sitka High students from 1993 to 2004. From left are Kristina Bidwell, Rachel Ulrich, Mitch Rusk, Nicholas Mitchell, Eris Weis and Joey Metz.

50 YEARS AGO

April 1974

The Fair Deal Association of Sealaska shareholders selected Nelson Frank as their candidate for the Sealaska Board of Directors at the ANB Hall Thursday.

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