Close Encounters Man vs. Nature

Divers almost end up in mouths of large whales

They're only a few feet away as lunge-feeding humpbacks break surface with mouths agape; expert: 'They're lucky no one got hurt'

divers

Video screen shot

Two Central California divers plunged into the food chain recently—and nearly ended up in the mouths of lunge-feeding humpback whales.

Though four cameramen are listed in the description of a video titled “Whales almost eat divers,” only two were in the water when sardines began to scatter and two humpbacks lunged upward with gaping mouths. (Pay close attention at 30 seconds, and note that there is profanity in the footage.)

The divers were Shawn Stamback and Francis Antigua. They were part of a SloDivers charter that had just been scuba diving at Souza Rock, two miles off Morro Bay.

Stamback said they were merely passing time before the next scuba dive by snorkeling among sardines and other life in the area. They had cameras and a safety rope, and hoped to get shots of humpbacks in the distance.

“When we got in, the whales were about a quarter of a mile away,” Stamback said.

Humpback whales feed on shrimp-like krill and small fish, which are ingested in large volumes with sea water. The water is expelled through baleen plates.

In this case the whales were clearly after the sardines, using vertical lunge-feeding techniques to catch the fish.

But humpback whales weigh up to 40 tons and the whales that appear in the video could have accidentally killed or injured the divers.

Monica DeAngelis, a mammal expert with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said she could not say based on the video whether the divers were violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which bans harassment or the altering of mammal behavior. Besides the MMPA, NOAA whale-watching guidelines recommend that boaters stay at least 100 yards from whales.

“They certainly are lucky no one got hurt,” DeAngelis said.

Stamback, who is second-closest to the whale in the video, said it seemed as though the whales intentionally avoided him and Antigua.

Which is good because just before the whales shot out of the water, Stamback noticed that sardines had amassed below, and he sensed that something was about to happen.

“I was right in the middle of the meatball,” he said.

–Find Pete Thomas on Facebook and Twitter