Kayaking with whales is one of the most intimate wildlife experiences a person can have. To be oar’s length from a mighty marine mammal, with just a sheet of molded plastic and the surface tension of the seawater between you, is exhilarating. But it can also be scary. Even footage of whales breaching near kayakers is enough to induce anxiety in landbound viewers. Several videos depicting similar scenes have gone viral on social media, leaving millions to wonder what they should even do if a whale encounter ever gets a little too close for comfort.
The most important measures kayakers can take to ensure their safety around whales are precautionary. They should keep a respectful distance of 100 yards, twice that if the whale is resting or a mother is nursing a calf. Under no circumstances should they attempt to chase or pet marine wildlife. If a whale approaches, kayakers should cease paddling to let it pass or retreat slowly to avoid contact, without making sudden movements or excess noise. When in groups, paddlers should “raft up” by arranging their kayaks in a row and holding on to one another to create fewer obstacles for the whales to maneuver around.
Being aware of a nearby whale’s behavior is key. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) lists several examples in its guidelines for cetacean watching for both boaters and kayakers. “Breaching, tail lobbing, and flipper slapping may be an indication that the whales are socializing and may not be aware of boats,” the guidelines state, advising onlookers to keep their distance on these occasions. Changes in direction or speed, quick dives, and general agitation are also signals to stay back, as is blowhole spray.
The Canadian government promotes similar rules when it comes to marine wildlife watching: “If you see a tail, fin, or spray, stay far enough away.” In short, as the IAATO says, acknowledging that whales are often curious, “It is important that the cetacean is in control at all times.”
Though whales will not try to hurt or kill humans, who are neither prey nor easily mistaken for food, their sheer mass poses a threat, whether they’re oblivious to a kayaker’s presence or attempting to be playful. But the rules outlined above are not just intended to protect recreationists. Laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 staunchly prohibit the public from jeopardizing the health and safety of whales and other sea creatures. Regulations surrounding wildlife interactions vary by state and species, but getting too close and interfering with ocean dwellers is always taboo.
Yet even among the most responsible kayakers, run-ins happen. Just ask Tom Mustill.
In 2015, Mustill, a wildlife filmmaker, became the subject of a viral video that captured a 30-ton humpback whale breaching beside his kayak in Monterey Bay, California, nearly crushing him and his kayaking partner when it landed. The traumatizing incident, which Mustill initially perceived as an act of aggression, inspired a deep dive into the habits of humpback whales that the filmmaker later released as the PBS documentary “The Whale Detective.”
In a 2019 Reddit thread promoting the documentary, Mustill attributes his survival to two factors: “Firstly the whale altered its course from landing on the kayak to landing parallel to us,” he wrote. “It hit the front of the kayak with its pectoral fin, smashing the kayak, but likely that point of contact was a few centimeters from [his friend’s] feet. As the whale came down I flipped the kayak over, so when it hit us, we were almost upside down underwater.”
The second half of the life-saving equation, as Mustill sees it, was their release from the kayak. When the whale’s pectoral fin hit the kayak, “it shot us out like corks, downwards, and then we were pulled with the whale and the kayak deeper underwater as it sank,” he wrote. Once freed from the cockpit, Mustill and his friend were able to swim to the surface and grab onto their kayak when it also resurfaced.
Investigating the species for his documentary, Mustill came to learn that humpback whales are not aggressive towards humans, as he first thought. In fact, humpbacks have often been observed exhibiting kind, gentle, and protective behavior, sometimes appearing to usher other marine life away from predators like orcas and sharks. Their disinterest in harming humans is common across whale species. Even orcas, or killer whales, which technically belong to the dolphin family, are rarely hostile toward humans. In places like Washington state’s San Juan Islands and Johnstone Strait in British Columbia, Canada, spotting orcas while kayaking is a regular occurrence, and several outdoor outfitters arrange expeditions to do just that.
Of course, flukes are inevitable — pun intended. Any kayaker paddling out into whale-inhabited waters should be prepared for an encounter and ready to maintain a safe, respectful distance if approached, both for their benefit and that of the gentle giants whose home they’re visiting.
As for those whose palms start sweating at the very thought of being thrown from a kayak by a breaching whale, there’s always the vicarious thrill of whale watching through a phone screen.