In the jaws of an orca

Point Sur, California. The sky is cloudy in the morning of September 9, 1972 but the water is calm and crystal clear. “Like the tropics”, remembers Hans Kretschmer all too well. Kretschmer, eighteen years old at the time, came to this beautiful place with two friend to go surfing.

Written by Leonard Boekee  /  June 2016

They were not alone in the water,  now and then some sea lions were playing in the waves. When something nudged Hans from behind, he first thought one of his surf companions was making a joke or that it might have been a curious sea lion. He looked over his shoulder. “I saw a glossy, black head bearing down on me”. The six meter long creature bit with an overwhelming strength in his leg. While Hans desperately tries to fend off his attacker with punches, he lost his surfboard. Then, the animal suddenly let go. In a record time, Hans swam 40 meter to the shore, while he yelled “shark, shark!”. “I was certain that a new attack would happen”. Admirably, the bleeding surfer reaches the shore safely.

“It looks like someone chopped your leg with a sharp ax”, said the doctor, 100 stitches later…”

“It looks like someone chopped your leg with a sharp ax”, said the doctor, 100 stitches later, to a relieved Hans. Three teeth sliced the leg to the bone, almost with surgical precision, narrowly missed a major artery. The wound did not look like a shark bite. Hans and his friends saw the animal that bit Hans only briefly, but from their description of the animal in combination with the teeth marks can be concluded that the attacker was an orca. “Afterwards, my friends were laughing because it was just like a cartoon; a small, helpless doll in the jaws of a huge whale”.

Hans Kretschmer is, as far as it is known, the only human ever wounded by an orca in the wild. It happens sometimes that orcas ‘play’ with divers; for example by carefully biting in the divers flippers. Was the attack in 1972 a game that got out of hand, or was it a mistake by a hungry hunter? Orcas often find sea lions without using echolocation, to prevent their prey will detect them before the attack. The prey is selected and attack using hearing and sight. An incautious orca could have thought the surfer in wetsuit was a tasty snack. Fortunately, it is very uncommon for orcas to be mistaken and they stop the attack in time. Otherwise, Hans would not have been able to tell his story.

“… is there a universal code that prohibit killing people?”

This event makes it clear that orcas in the wild do not want to kill a human. There is something preventing orcas from carrying through, even if a defenseless, easy meal is already between the jaws. Is this because orcas are such picky eaters that they only feed from the menu they learn through culture? Or is there a universal code that prohibits killing people? And what about the people who died after incidents with captive orcas? Accidents or attacks as a result of the unnatural circumstances in which these predators live? We probably will never know for certain and that makes the story of Hans Kretschmer so intriguing.



News article: Lodi News-Sentinel – Sep 12, 1972
Interview with Hans Kretschmer via telephone on March 12, 2013
“The Whale called killer”, Erich Hoyt