NEWBURYPORT — The only chance most people get to see a killer whale is when they visit Sea World in Orlando, Fla., or another sea life park.
But according to a handful of West Newbury residents, they got the thrill of a lifetime Sunday when they saw at least two orcas about 16 miles offshore.
Christopher Trim, captain of the 22-foot craft Pripet, said he was on a boating trip with his children and other family friends near the Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast Sunday afternoon when they saw loads of small bait fish shooting out of the water.
Recognizing the possibility that some large sea creature might be responsible for such an event, Trim navigated his center-console boat a little closer. And that's when they saw what looked like two killer whales, according to Trim.
"It was breathtaking. It was just remarkable, remarkable that they were out there," he said.
Rob Ruszkowski of West Newbury was also on board with his children, Lucas, 10, and Ethan, 8. One of the boys was first to spot the whales. When his son pointed them out, Ruszkowski said it appeared they were coming out of the water and facing the boat.
"It was just unbelievable, unbelievable," Ruszkowski said.
Lucas said he was thrilled to see such a huge creature, one that he had never seen before.
"Well, I was kind of nervous it was going to flip the boat and stuff. So I was nervous and excited," Lucas said.
Trim said the whales were about 175 yards away on the left side of his boat and looked to be between 20 and 25 feet long. At no point did the whales become aggressive or pose any threat to the boat, he said.
When asked if he or his passengers were nervous to be in proximity to the sea creatures, Trim said they merely thought, "Hang on tight and keep the life jackets on, but they were a ways away."
The sight of killer whales so close to Newburyport is not only breathtaking, but it's apparently also very uncommon, according to multiple sources.
Zac Malenfant, a naturalist for Cape Ann Whale Watch in Gloucester, said the last time anyone from the 32-year-old company saw a killer whale was in 1981.
Newburyport harbormaster Paul Hogg said he's never seen one during his career.
"Anything is possible, but it's very, very unlikely (to spot one)," Hogg said.
When asked how they knew what they saw were killer whales, Trim and Ruszkowski said they both noticed the creatures' completely white bellies. Trim added the shape of the whales' snouts and heads also clued him in.
"I'm just really shocked that I've seen one," Trim said.
Killer whales are mammals in the same oceanic family as dolphins. They can reach 26 feet in length and weigh more than 10 tons. They are seen in all parts of the world, but the largest populations are typically concentrated in colder waters. Killer whales typically eat small fish, but will also eat seals and, on occasion, feed on larger whales and sharks.
Killer whales have been known to kill their human trainers, but Malenfant said the large animals don't feed on people.