Story and Photos by Steven King
In June and the first few weeks of July, large numbers of humpback whales have been seen on a daily basis south of the Golden Gate Bridge, especially close to shore in Pacifica and Half Moon Bay, California.
It is common to see the mists of whales spouts rising above the sea from the shore just south of Half Moon Bay harbor at what’s known as surfer’s beach. Lucky whale-worshiping people like myself have also seen lunge feeding, spy hopping and occasional breaching.
A brief definition of these behaviors is needed to frame the unforgettable experience I had on July 9. Lunge feeding is when one or more humpbacks surface vertically with their mouths open, filling their lower mouth area with large volumes of water that contain fish or krill. The water and food are then pressed into the upper jaw and squeezed through the whale’s baleen, which captures the food while releasing the water. At times two or more whales will surface side by side to lung feed. Spy hopping is when the whale rises vertically out of the water with a closed mouth, allowing the whale to see what is near or around it. Breaching is of course when a whale leaps fully out of the water, landing with a loud splash.
On July 9th at surfer's beach, there were 4-6 individual humpback whales swimming in regular patterns north to south and then back again, often 10 yards or less from lines of surfers. There were also a few people on paddle boards just outside the lines of surfers. I’d seen this from a friend’s house above the beach and I quickly went home to get my Tsunami X-15 washdeck kayak.
I launched through small surf off the beach, paddled out 75 yards and began to take in the spectacle with my camera. I made a point to maintain the legal distance of 100 yards from marine mammals as required by the Marine Mammals Protection Act. Within a few minutes, a whale rose out of the water lunge feeding right next to a person on a paddle board. Shortly after that, two whales surfaced close to two surfers who also were elated by the proximity. I paddled and took photographs up and down the "alley" of whales who were spy hopping and lunge feeding on a regular basis for two hours. I paddled south a bit toward Half Moon Bay when I saw a whale blow about 100 yards away. I waited, hoping to take another photograph when it surfaced.
Then the whale silently and gracefully lifted out of the water beside my kayak. It approached perpendicular to my kayak and placed its upper jaw across the deck of my boat. It lowered its mouth onto my thigh, pinning my leg very hard. The whale was essentially squeezing down as they do to force water and fish through the baleen. That technique did not work of course as its lower jaw was stuck on the side of my kayak. I could have tickled its baleen with my hand. The upper jaw was still squeezing down on my thigh, which hurt quite a bit. After a few seconds, the whale released me and slid back into the water, capsizing my kayak in the process. I flipped the boat up and climbed back into it, wondering how much damage had been done to my leg. As I struggled to reenter the cockpit I noticed a small fish in my foot pedal area, clearly part of what he was trying to eat.
I was alone and could not quite believe what had happened. I was able to move and bend my leg, so I knew it was not broken but it hurt a lot. It took 15 minutes or so for the pain to begin to subside. A few minutes later, another kayaker in an open deck boat approached and said he noticed that my kayak was upside down and wondered if I was ok. I shared my experience and he looked surprised. My leg was bruised underneath the knee and was stiff and painful for the next few days.
I did take my daughter Lena and a family friend out again the next day in X-15 kayaks. There was a lot of wind by the time we launched out of the Half Moon Bay harbor (10-15 knots) but we saw several whales feeding again in the same location very close to shore. There were no surfers that day. We gave the whales more space than I had the day before.
–Although I tried to observe accepted standards for whale watching, it’s probably safer stay away from whales altogether when they are lung feeding or breaching. It’s not always possible to maintain 100 yards of distance since whales move around so quickly.
–I wonder if my white kayak in less-than-clear water may have looked like a fish ball or school of shimmering fish. It’s possible that darker kayaks are less likely to attract a lung feeding whale?
–Finally, I am a member of the Tsunami Rangers and have been trained in a variety of ocean kayaking skills. I have always been taught that anything can happen on the sea. I have not heard an account of this sort by any other kayaker, but I did find a video of two divers who were nearly swallowed by two large, adult lunge-feeding humpbacks, which missed them by only a few feet.
Many, many ocean kayakers have of course had the great pleasure of being in the presence of various species of whales and other marine mammals. It’s part of magic and mystery of open ocean kayaking. I highly doubt that my experience will occur to anyone else. A humpback whale did breach last October in Monterey Bay and nearly landed on a double kayak, however, so anything is possible.
I have a deep respect for these majestic marine mammals. I have no desire to cause them any stress as they enjoy the richness of the waters around Half Moon Bay. In the future, I will try to stay back well beyond the 100-yard legal limit, and I will exercise extra caution when they are lunge feeding.