My paddle with the whale
This is the story of how I found myself Stand Up Paddle boarding with a whale.
My boyfriend and I lived a 15 mile drive from the beach and were planning on SUP surfing if we could manage to find a place where the waves were breaking. Picture a typical day in the fall in North Carolina with air temps in the 60s (Fahrenheit) and a refreshing stillness and freshness to the outside air that draws you to the ocean, imagining the possibility of a clean wave to ride.
The coastline of North Carolina consists of barrier islands termed "The Outer Banks" protecting the mainland from the powerful ocean elements. We lived on the mainland side of the southern outerbanks, and must cross a bridge to make it to the beach and check the surf. While there is a certain element of predictability with modern forecasting and live cams available online, it is sometimes difficult to know if there are going to be waves. You truly must "go to know", but it helps that during the fall and winter season you are permitted to drive 4x4 vehicles on the beach allowing you to find the best break. Plus, who doesn't love the thought of driving their truck to the beach for a beach day?!
side note from a different adventure--make sure your beach truck reliably starts before parking it below the high tide line
So, we loaded the truck with our boards, paddles, and wetsuits, but when we arrived the ocean was like a mirror with not a ripple or a chance of a wave to ride. We hung out for a bit, then made our way toward the bridge to the mainland. I distinctly remember the feeling at the foot of the bridge, something was telling me not to leave, but to turn around and go for a paddle anyway
So we turned around, and immediately upon crossing over from asphalt to sand we saw a woman pointing out to sea and thought we heard her say "whale" to the person next to her. Moments later, we saw it too.
Naturally, at this point we decided this would be a lovely day to go for a paddle!!!
it's quite difficult to get the focus right while on a paddle board with a $500 phone and a whale surfacing unpredictably
We positioned ourselves several hundred yards ahead in the direction the whale was traveling. We watched as the whale came closer and closer and as it did my heart began beating much faster, my skin was hot, and my knees were weak. I was both excited and completely terrified.
This encounter is, after all, of the highest possible magnitude. Humpback whales are up to 10x longer than humans and more than 600x heavier. The humpback whale's heart alone is 3 times the size of the human body.
The whale approached.
It was surrounded by dolphins and was surfacing frequently. As it came closer it was clear that the group was feeding on large schools of small fish. The scent in the air was unforgettably fishy and there was a oily film on the water surface. Reflecting on this experience, I have a wholly new appreciation for the expression "something smells a little fishy around here".
The whale surfaced directly next to my board and my small little SELF and exhaled sharply, shooting a spout up that covered me in a magical mist.
I DON'T THINK I HAVE EVER FELT SO ALIVE
We paddled with the group for a while watching them surface just ahead. The dolphins were jumping fully out of the water at times, and the whale would sometimes show its tail. I remember thinking I could have done this forever. I was so present. So full.
And then the whale surfaced with it's mouth wide open, it's throat spreading out wide with the incredible volume of water. I could clearly see the hundreds of small fish darting away from it's massive mouth, and then I looked into the whale's eye.
Of course, I convinced myself it was looking right at me.
Of course, I felt we had a moment of connection.
I like to believe we did.
Once we all got to the pier the word had spread and there were hundreds of people photographing. That was a big day for the whale on social media. Just imagine all the likes and shares. By use of social media I was able to connect with a woman who had taken a photo of us.
a photo of us, and the whale
After this close encounter I began researching whale behavior and habits. I learned of a surface behavior termed "spyhopping" where the whale will raise its head and eyes above the water surface with it's body positioned vertically and it will tread water using it's pectoral fins. It is commonly believed this behavior is used to "spy" on the world above.