Boaters enjoy rare intimate encounter with courting gray whales

Graywhaleshane keena
Boaters shield themselves from whale breath during a rare close encounter with courting gray whales off Dana Point. Credit: Shane Keena. Second image is courtesy of Kayla Causey and third is by Janet McLellan. Video is courtesy of Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari

Two gray whales migrating off Southern California on Sunday appear to have been inflicted with a severe case of spring fever.

During a long period of courting and possibly mating, they spent several hours interacting with astonished boaters in what has to rank as one of the all-time great whale encounters in local waters.

In at least one case they rubbed against the smooth underside of a large sailboat, and in another they blew stinky whale breath into the faces of two admirers aboard a small craft (see photos).

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Captains from two Dana Point landings said they had never witnessed this type of behavior—lengthy courtship while also acting friendly toward boaters—outside of Baja California’s lagoons, which are the breeding grounds for gray whales.

Capt. Tom Southern of Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari, which runs from Dana Point, described the two mammals to the Orange County Register as “the best pair of gray whales ever.”

“We saw some mating, then they went right over to the sailboat and parked themselves under it, pushing it in the water,” Southern said. “Not harsh, but very gently playing and rolling on their sides. They kept doing it for more than an hour.”

Passengers aboard the Dana Pride out of Dana Wharf Whale Watch provided the photos for this story, and Captain Dave’s provided the video.


To be sure, for all who were present during this St. Patrick’s Day leviathan love fest, it was like being at the center of a nature channel moment.

“It was just an amazing day,” Southern said. “We spent the entire day with whales that were mating—that’s some real stamina. I’ve never seen anything like it. Everyone was talking about it. It was really cool.”