Getting close to an animal that weighs many tons — in a watery environment that feels foreign to us land-bound mammals — is exciting and invigorating. Such an encounter can establish a stronger connection to nature. That's just one reason why whale watching tours have skyrocketed since the 1980s — people love to get close. However, sometimes we get way too close. These videos show eight examples of accidental and sometimes purposeful proximity to whales and orcas that leave the participants a little shaky with adrenaline.
In this first video, a pod of humpback whales moves in close to a fishing boat while the whales do a little fishing of their own:
A similar encounter happens when these orcas, the largest members of the dolphin family, move in to examine a fishing boat. Speed up to the two-minute mark and you'll see what an extraordinary encounter it is for the fisherman, who starts to get a little unnerved at the amount of attention he receives:
Sometimes whales and dolphins move in close because they're curious, or because they don't really care that you're there. Sometimes they'll simply pass directly under the kayakers.
But sometimes it goes a different way entirely. The encounter documented in the video below is more hair-raising, in no small part because the divers put themselves in a situation where something dangerous just might happen. This clip became famous when it hit the web a little over two years ago, and has nearly 9.5 million views on YouTube:
Thankfully no one was hurt. However, these divers are aware they're in the middle of a school of fish and that whales are feeding a matter of yards away, as we can see in the video before the close call happens. A group of sea lions is also alert and active only yards away. Such activity by whales so near is already a heads-up to get back in the boat and out of the water since a close call is likely to happen.
Whales are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, which has regulations about getting too close. The regulations are there to protect whales and other marine mammals from human activity since our presence can interrupt feeding or cause stress. The rule is that a person should always attempt to stay at least 100 yards away from a whale.
But keeping that distance is also intended to protect the people doing the watching. Though they appear to be too close in the first place, the divers in the video above told news reporters that they were surprised at how quickly the whales moved in and that they didn't realize the whales had come that close that fast. One misplaced flip of the fin, or one whale more focused on something other than human floating at the surface, could mean injury or death for the person in the way.
Here's another nail-biting close call that happened to two kayakers:
Did this whale turn away deliberately to avoid harming the kayakers? One of them, Tom Mustill, thinks that might be a distinct possibility. In a column on The Guardian, Mustill writes, "Prof Joy Reidenberg from Mount Sinai University in New York, a whale specialist whom I worked with on a documentary series called Inside Nature’s Giant's, told me: 'Humpback whales usually breach in two ways: chin slaps where half the body emerges and they land on their throat, and full breaches where they land on their back (or side). Your whale did a full breach, but rotated and landed on the throat. This is unusual, and might indicate that it was surprised by your presence when it breached and saw you. Perhaps turning like that allowed it to put a softer part of its body next to you to cause less damage (compared with a body slam using the bone of the skull that they might employ while fighting). I think you two survived because the whale cared about trying not to hit you.'"
A similar experience of a whale changing course at the last moment to avoid a person happens in this nightmarish video in which a Bryde's whale appears from the depths, mouth open and coming straight for the camera-wielding diver:
The diver here also notes that the whale seemed to change direction at the last moment to avoid him.
Many people purposefully place themselves in the middle of feeding activity hoping to get just that kind of close call. With how calm all parties are in the video below, it seems clear they know they're in the middle of a bait ball and are just waiting for a near-miss.
Sometimes even when people on the water are doing the right thing, like the kayakers near Discovery Island off the coast of British Columbia were doing — staying 100 meets away from whales — it's not enough. The video shows a tail flip and a calf's breach from a distance, and then the calf's mother swims up for a maybe too-close-for-comfort breach:
Some people do this perhaps because they don't realize the rules or the effects of their presence and just want to be close. Perhaps others get so close so that they can get that "almost got swallowed" headline. The problem, of course, is that to get this kind of close action, the whale watchers are disrupting feeding whales, and potentially causing the whales harm in addition to putting themselves at a certain level of risk.
Monterey Bay Whale Watch deals with this kind of too-close approach by kayakers, paddleboarders and surfers all the time. In a photo of a kayaker feet away from a feeding whale that also nearly snags a bird, the company notes, "The birds are simply trying to feed, though getting caught in the mouth of a lunging whale isn't helpful to either of them! The bird in the red circle managed to escape moments later. The kayaker, on the other hand, had no excuse for being so close. He said, when told to back off, what was he to do, the whales (this and many others) came up close to him! Well, that's what the paddle is for. Move further away!! Then the whale won't have to dodge you, the fish won't be disturbed and the whale will only have to worry about not swallowing birds."
Indeed — that's what paddles are for. Instead of getting closer, those who wish to respectfully view feeding whales can use those paddles to get out of the way and (also avoid possibly being reported for breaking federal regulations).
Our obsession with being in the action to get viral-worthy videos and photos is dangerous both to humans and to the subjects they're hoping to capture. These close calls may be thrilling but they are also a great reminder that whales need plenty of space to be able to go about their daily lives.
Count yourself lucky if a whale approaches you out of curiosity or because you suddenly realize you are in each other's path. But for the most part, enjoy them from a distance. It might also keep you from being, you know, landed on.