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Humpback whales surface only a few feet from kayakers, prompting varied reactions

Whale watching
Kayakers all react differently as humpback whales surface within touching distance. Photo: ©Jodi Frediani

A group of kayakers in California's Monterey Bay this week found themselves only a few feet from feeding humpback whales, and by some miracle they were not swamped by the 40-ton leviathans.

The chaotic moments on Sunday were captured in a series of stills by photographer Jodi Frediani, who was nearby aboard a Monterey Bay Whale Watch boat.

The photos illustrate the thrills, but also the dangers associated with kayaking among feeding whales.

Whale watching
Kayaker tries to take selfie with humpback whales behind him. Photo: ©Jodi Frediani

The top two photos appear to capture the essence of the moment. Note the man to the right, trying to take a selfie as one humpback whale surfaces only a few feet away, and another reveals its massive fluke as it behinds to dive.

Note also the woman to the left, aboard the yellow kayak, glancing downward away from the whales as if she had just dropped her car keys overboard.

Humpback whales, among the mammals featured during the past several days on BBC's "Big Blue Live" Monterey Bay special, are in the bay focused entirely on feeding.

Whale watching
Locals say it’s only a matter of time before a kayaker is injured by a surfacing humpback whale. Photo: ©Jodi Frediani

What they have to deal with, at times, is a circus atmosphere created by so many admirers.

Said Frediani: "There were quite a number of boats in the area, including five or more whale-watching boats, several private boats from skiffs to small yachts, plus at least one recreational fishing boat that kept plying the waters in the midst of it all. As she fished about with her arm in the water up to her elbow, the boy looked somewhat stoically at the passing whales."

Then there were the paddlers, about 11 in the group Frediani was watching, seemingly aboard rental kayaks on a guided tour of the bay.

Whale watching
A seemingly placid moment for kayakers surrounding a humpback whale. Photo: ©Jodi Frediani

Locals say it's only a matter of time before a kayaker is seriously injured or killed by a whale that accidentally strikes the paddler during a surface lunge, a full breach, or a tail slap.

The vessels are simply too small and stealthy to be among massive cetaceans that are focussed 100% on feeding before migrating to waters off Mexico for the winter.

"The humpback whales and common dolphins were quite busy zooming around from one bait ball to another," Frediani said. "According to our captain, the fish were 300 to 400 feet deep. Action was happening in all directions."

The photographer stressed that the kayakers were not pursuing the whales. They were merely stationed – like the whale-watching boats – in the midst of a colossal feeding event, serving as floating obstacles for whales as they surfaced to breathe.

Remarkably, the kayakers expressed little or no concern about being in such close proximity to 45-foot mammals whose power is immense.

"I could not read any signs of fear on their faces," Frediani said. "Either they had confidence in their guide, or maybe they were clueless. Those who were paying attention had expressions of pleasure and excitement.

"One guy was really into taking selfies of himself with his friend and the whales, and they seemed to be smiling for the camera. The woman in the yellow kayak with a teenage kid, probably her son, seemed to have dropped something in the water and was more concerned with retrieving it than paying attention to the whales."

The photographer said the "apparent guide" is the man wearing the hoodie in the single green kayak.

"He seemed to be the only one totally engaged in viewing the close pass of the whales," Frediani said.

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