New Zealand surfer discovers why touching a whale is a bad idea

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Southern right whale swats at Sam Todd seconds after being touched. Photo (enhanced to bring the surfer into view): Courtesy of James Gunn, via Otago Daily Times

A New Zealand surfer discovered first-hand this week that while large whales might appear docile, they do not always appreciate being touched.

Sam Todd, one of two surfers who paddled out for a close look at southern right whales off the Dunedin coast, had to duck for cover when the whale slashed with its fluke after he placed both hands on the cetacean.

Todd and his companion, Craig Latta, also were criticized by the Department of Conservation for violating whale-watching guidelines, which state that boaters and paddlers must try to stay at least 50 meters from whales.

Drone footage posted by News Hubb New Zealand shows Todd off his surfboard, reaching out to touch the 30-foot whale with both hands near its tail or fluke section. The whale's reaction was sort of like that of a horse using its tail to swat at a pesky fly. (The accompanying YouTube footage includes video and stills of the encounter; other footage is posted below.)

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Sam Todd (left) and Craig Latta share the water with 30-foot southern right whales.

DOC spokesman David Agnew is quoted by News Hub as saying, "My impression is they took a big risk, probably unknowingly, by approaching the whale and getting that close to the whale and actually touching it. When it flicked its tail, it looked awfully close to the person."

Todd told the Otago Daily Times that it was a "once in a lifetime experience,' and added: "Not many people in the world get a chance to have an experience like this one, and for it to happen in old Dunedin, it's pretty special."

Todd said that at no time did he fear for his safety, despite feeling the whale tense up a moment before its tail slash. (Had the whale struck Todd with its massive fluke, it could easily have been a fatal blow.)

RELATED: Whale breach a bit too close for comfort

These were most likely juvenile whales. Southern right whales, which are found throughout the southern hemisphere, can measure nearly 60 feet and weigh up to 60 tons.

It remains unclear whether the surfers will be prosecuted for approaching the mammals.

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