The Finback Whale Encounter

It was a warm day, flat and calm on the open ocean, a perfect day to look for whales.  The visibility, both in and out of the water was phenomenal.  Catalina Island’s features, although 26 miles away, were easily seen.  Any anomaly on the surface of the water could be spotted from miles away, and I was eager to take advantage of the conditions.

One mile into my workout, I exited Newport Harbor, and made a slight right at the end of the jetty to head straight out to sea and right at Avalon.  I pointed my board toward a cluster of boats which appeared to be roughly another mile out, or approximately one mile off the jetty’s end. 

I had learned by this point that when you see a cluster of boats in the middle of the ocean, and if they do not appear to be doing much at all, or going anywhere in particular, that often means the boats are whale watching boats and that they have found a whale.  Once a whale is found, more and more boats appear, and as the whale travels on its way, the boats follow together. 

After a few minutes, the whale will often flip its flukes to the tourists, and start a deep dive into the abyss.  During these deep dives, the whale is usually gone for 10-15 minutes feeding, before it comes up for another breath.  During the deep dive, the boats’ captains make guesses about where the whale may surface and the boats mill around in different directions, hoping to be closest to the whale when it surfaces.  When it finally does, the boats race to the spot and the picture-taking and gasps begin again.   I had seen this happen time and time again, both as a paddler and as a whale watching passenger on those same boats.  So, when I saw that cluster of boats, I figured if I paddled over to them, I would have a good shot at seeing a whale.

It is mostly luck of course to find a whale in that vast emptiness, particularly when you are on a standup paddleboard and can travel only so fast.  As my paddle fitness has increased over the years, my ability to range further and further from shore increased along with it, and I was able to get further out and see more whales.  For me, four to five mph is usually my cruising speed, particularly if I am going to keep it up for a couple hours.  That gives me 10 miles of coverage in two hours, and most of the time, if I want to get to work in the morning, I limit myself to one hour.  So, yeah, I have to get really lucky to see a whale. 

On this particular day, I hit the lottery.  I paddled out to the cluster of boats, which were even with Balboa Pier, but approximately one mile offshore.  Three boats waited, with their engines idling.  I paddled up to a small spotter boat, with only two people on board.  Practically within arm’s distance of the boat, I asked the spotter captain what they found, and he said it was a fin whale.  He said it had been down for about 15 minutes and was expected up anytime.    

I had never seen a fin whale before, and never seen a whale of that size from my SUP before.  Fin whales are huge, and even among whales they are massive.  They are the second largest animals on earth, second only to the blue whale.  They can get up to 85 feet long.  On a 14-foot board, that would mean this fin whale could be six times the length of my board.  Fin whales are also endangered and I was amazed I had a chance to see one. 

I scanned the water.  The three boats, two of which were packed with fifty or so tourists each, lollygagged around.  We were all within a 100-yard radius, everyone looking this way and that silently.  Only the boats’ idling engines could be heard. 

Suddenly, a whoosh and a hiss.  The finner surfaced about fifty yards outside our radius, and spouted a 15-foot high plume of mist.  It was swimming away from us.  All three boats revved their engines, their bows lifted, and they quickly headed toward the whale. 

I started paddling for all I was worth but was left quickly in their wakes.  After a few minutes of the finner traveling on the surface, and with the boats slowly trailing it, it dove again.  Although I paddled as hard as I could to see him before the dive, it was gone and only a boil remained on the surface.   

As I neared the boil, all three boats revved up again and moved on.  My guess was that they had been watching the whale for some time and it was time to get back to the harbor to pick up the next group of tourists.  The boats were gone, and I was gloriously alone out there, with a massive whale perhaps a thousand feet below me, presumably eating krill to its heart’s content. 

I was not going to let this moment pass me by, so I decided to wait for it to come back.  I sat on my board, legs crossed, pulled out a peanut butter Clif bar and munched away in the silence, squinting at the morning sun.  My board only barely rocked with the near non-existent swell.  I waited a full ten minutes in silence, listening hard for a distant spout.

But then, a sudden FWOOOOSH, this time much louder, erupted just behind me.  I whipped my head around, and just fifty feet or so behind, a swirling mist of water droplets hanging in the air.  Below it, the massive wide black girth of the whale, rolling forward, and forward some more, its body apparently never ending.  It was coming right toward me.

I shot up to my feet, paddle ready, but not sure which side of the board to paddle on yet.  Which way was it going to go, to my left or right?  My legs were shaking with excitement.  With a small thrust of his tail, the rear portion of its head broke the surface again, and now just 25 feet or so to my left, it breathed out again. 

I watched it glide by me, with shock and amazement at its size.  Its head alone appeared to be as large as my board.  I could only just see its eye below the surface, but it appeared to be paying me no mind.  Its body was like a nuclear submarine, black and sleek and powerful.  It motored on, effortlessly and silently, past me.

And then I heard it inhale.  It was a mighty sucking wind, as if a large auditorium were being filled with oxygen in seconds.  The sound of its inhalation convinced me even more than the sight of it, that this indeed was a terrifying behemoth, and I should keep my distance.  

As it passed me, I started paddling gingerly along with it.  I willed my knees to stop shaking and got my wits about me.  I paddled alongside it for a minute as it moved up and down calmly, breathing intermittently, now with smaller spouts of air.  I had to speed up to keep up. 

For about two minutes, we traveled together south down the coast.   As we did, I got a good look at it.  It was definitely a fin whale, and definitely in the 75-80 foot range.  I had paddled with gray whales and humpback whales numerous times, and this one was twice the size of any of the humpbacks I had seen.

The entire time the whale never gave any indication that it acknowledged my existence at all.  It went about its business traveling along, engaged in its mysterious thoughts.  Then, after another prominent inhale, the whale showed its full length, its spine rolling in a curving slow beautiful motion on the surface.  As its body prepared to dive, it showed a sharp fin, and then flashed its V-shaped flukes directly ahead of me.  The tail appeared well out of the water and with a soft thrust, it vanished into the deep.  I hooted as it disappeared, said my goodbye, and smiled the entire way back to the harbor.

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