t is an amazing picture of man and nature getting a little too close for comfort. Whale watchers got more than they bargained for when a 40-ton marine mammal leapt out of the water and onto their boat. Marine mammal researcher Kim Durham said she first thought the picture was a fake.
It shows a massive southern right whale breaking the surface of the ocean practically on top of a 32-foot sailboat cruising off Cape Town, South Africa.
“I was absolutely amazed. I’ve heard stories about that, but to see the photo is really something,” said Durham, who works for the Riverhead Foundation.
The animal came crashing down on the boat demolishing the mast and then swam away bruised, according to witnesses but otherwise uninjured. The sailors on board also escaped without serious injury but were still shaken by the experience hours later.
“I just saw this huge shape come out the water and I thought umm. You know literally, I was absolutely stunned and then chaos around us,” sailor Ralph Mothes said.
“We’ve been sailing for many years and we’ve had whales coming. And they’re always coming close, and they’ve gone under the boat and come up on the other side. So we thought it was going to be, ‘Wow, what an awesome picture to put on the website,'” sailor Paloma Werner added.
Well, it was an awesome picture for someone’s website.
The leap — “breeching” it’s called — is something whales do instinctively. Another photo taken on Fire Island just two weeks ago shows a humpback whale breeching a short distance off the beach.
Whale watchers often get too close to the spectacle at their own peril.
“You can observe from a distance, basically. You don’t want to approach the animal. You don’t want to be perceived chasing the animal. You have to kind of be aware. The best advice I can give you is enjoy it, but enjoy it from a distance,” Durham said.
The people at the Marine Mammal Center are getting reports of whale sightings off Fire Island, Long Beach and the Jersey Shore. The bottom line is it could happen here, too.
All the whales in our area are a protected species under federal law. It’s actually a crime to get close enough to one of these creatures to alter or affect its behavior in any way.