The waters off Dana Point in southern California have long been a favorite summer destination for whale watchers. While there are many types of craft from which to seek blue whale sightings, the experience from a charter motorboat–watching the world’s biggest whales through binoculars–does not compare to an up-close encounter from a sea kayak. “It looked like that scene from the movie The Abyss where this thing was just like an island coming out of the ocean right next to you, and spouting,” Mark Sanders says of his Aug. 10 close encounter.

Mark and his kayak have been touring the seas of the California coast for the past 12 years. His photos here and conversation with us tell the story of one of his most spectacular blue whale sightings to date.

C&K: So you’ve been getting chummy with big blue whales.

MS: I’ve been close to them now a few times and it’s not so scary, but the first time one came up right next to me it really was. Now I feel at home with them, like they know where I am and they’re not going to come up right under me. I feel pretty safe out there nowadays. Still I feel the excitement of that first whoosh when I hear the spout come up.

C&K: Tell us about your first blue whale sighting.

MS: I saw my first blue whale from my kayak about five years ago, and every year since I’ve been going out looking for them, around July and August. Dana Point seems to be the most active area, about three miles off the coast.

C&K: How close were you to this blue whale when he surfaced?

MS: I think a quarter mile at the most. The good thing about this whale – more than any whale I’ve ever seen – he was really spending a lot of time on the surface, then diving straight down. I think he was in feeding mode instead of traveling mode. Especially when you get the tail, you know they’re diving deep.

C&K: What did you do when you saw it?

MS: I had my Canon DSLR around my neck and I’m paddling like a madman to get close enough to get some photos of these whales. You’re excited, you’re shaking, you’re trying to get a good picture, and he’s always moving. So it’s quite exciting chasing him down.

C&K: Once you stopped shaking, it turned out to be a great photo op. How would you rank that day?

MS: My first time seeing the blue whales – I call that one of my most amazing days kayaking ever, and this one definitely ranks right up there.