When long-standing swimmer Judie Johnson headed into the water for her usual Tuesday dip in a sheltered bay on the Coromandel Peninsula, there was little to indicate it would be anything out of the ordinary.
Had she known four orcas were submerged just beyond the breakers, she probably wouldn't have kicked off her 2km swim to the southern end of the beach and back.
But on an overcast day last December, the Hahei woman plunged in, only to find herself joined part way through by three large creatures of the deep, suddenly swooping in from behind, diving under and weaving around her.
Remarkably, the magical encounter was captured by a drone buzzing high overhead and what it showed – an orca, her calf and another juvenile frolicking in the waves around the 68-year-old – was nothing short of sensational.
Not surprisingly, within hours of hitting social media, it went viral.
"It's blown me away to think that people would be interested," she says.
"I just love talking about it because even though I think people must be over it by now, they still come up to me."
Judie says at first, she thought her ocean companion was a dolphin.
"And then I saw the big white markings and realised it certainly wasn't a dolphin but an orca!"
Desperate to keep nerves at bay, she kept swimming, concerned that any hint of fear might be sensed by the mammals many times her size. But as she concentrated on her stroke, the retiree grew more confident they were more curious than predatory.
"I sensed they weren't there to attack," she recalls. "They swam around me, they swam really close and sometimes alongside me."
She vividly remembers the mesmerising moment the largest orca swam slowly past, turned and held her gaze.
"We were probably only half a metre apart, so I was looking right into its eye. That was quite special because I felt I was looking into this huge beast. I don't know if I was looking for anger, but it all felt quite calm and non-threatening."
By this stage, the presence of orcas so close to shore and with a lone swimmer had gained the attention of anxious beachgoers gathering on the shore.
Feeling confident she wasn't in harm's way, Judie says she swam to the end of the beach before getting out of the water.
"I just kept swimming," she says. "I could see people gathering on the shore about 500 metres down. I wondered whether I should get out, but I was quite relaxed by then, so I swam to the end of the beach.
"A couple came up to me and said, 'We could see what was happening and were really concerned. We didn't know how to contact you or let you know.'"
At this point, Judie, who in her earlier years competed at a national level and who enjoys year-round regular beach swims with a group of locals, admits her desire to finish her swim saw her re-enter the water.
"Even today, I wonder why I did that. People have told me I was a bit daft doing it, but it was such a special thing to do. So I got back in, and the three orcas just turned around and came back with me.
"The big one kept looking at my toes. I had nail polish on and I was thinking, 'I wonder if they can actually see colour?' and, "I wonder if it's going to nibble my toes?' It obviously didn't, and I flipped over and did freestyle. I'd also seen the drone while I was doing backstroke and thought, 'What if I could see footage of this?'"
That question was answered within 24 hours, with an Australian tourist putting a spellbinding clip of the killer whales darting around Judie on social media.
Her epic encounter quickly became headlines across the globe.
"I lived in Canada and have family there, and they saw it on their news. Somebody from the Netherlands approached me on the beach recently saying they saw it on their news. There's more than 25 million views on YouTube!"
But she is quick to point out had she known there were orcas in the bay that day, she would not have stepped into the water.
"If I saw them, I wouldn't think, 'Hey, there are my mates, I'll go out and join them.' I've got a healthy respect, so I'd just stand back and admire them from the shore probably.
"I find it an exceptional thing to have happened and the most exciting thing that happened in the past year," she adds.
"I was in the right place at the right time, swimming at my beach and they happened to come by that day."
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