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Bay of Plenty resident Paul Carter saw three New Zealand orca whales "happily" making their way past Pukehina beach at about 6.45am yesterday.
"There was one fairly large male and two females. They would have been about 30m off the shore. They were heading towards Whakatane.
"They chase the stingrays. When they're in close like that, they're looking for breakfast."
Pukehina beach lies east of Maketu, one of the areas worst affected by the spill after Rena ran aground the Astrolabe reef on October 5, spilling tonnes of oil into the ocean.
Mr Carter said the whales appeared to have travelled from the direction of Mt Maunganui and Papamoa, areas included in the exclusion zone around the stricken vessel.
Up to 10 tonnes leaked from the vessel on Saturday night and it was thought the whole amount would never be recovered, Maritime New Zealand official Alex van Wijngaarden said. The monitored oil was expected to move north. Four containers recovered from the sea floor yesterday were damaged, their contents dispersed.
A 3km stretch of beach from Mt Maunganui to Tay St yesterday reopened to the public. Cleaning efforts continue. The immediate forecast is for good weather.
As of Saturday afternoon, 256 tonnes of the estimated 1700 tonnes on board the ship had been pumped on to the tanker Awanuia and a submerged starboard tank containing 320 tonnes of oil aboard Rena had been found intact, the group said.
Salvors hoped to start recovering oil from this tank soon.
Orca biologist Dr Ingrid Visser said there was a high chance the whales had ingested oil.
"This is devastating for these individuals because it has been shown from scientific studies that exposure to oil like this causes liver damage, chronic cell infiltration, stomach ulcers, jaundice, inflammation, you name it."
The fumes were toxic for them, she said. There were fewer than 200 orcas around the New Zealand coastline, and they were rated with the highest endangered threat available for animals.