A B.C. family had a thrilling experience off the coast of Vancouver Island when a humpback whale spent almost an hour rubbing up against their boat, spinning around and flapping its fins.
Aleks Mount was whale watching with his family northeast of Campbell River on Tuesday when the whale got friendly.
When they first spotted the humpback about 100 metres away, Mount said he immediately shut off his engine, intending to keep his distance.
But the whale dived underwater, only to resurface less than a minute later below their boat.
Mount said at first he and his family were terrified of the creature, which he described as the size of a school bus.
“All it has to do is flip its tail and the boat will be in the air,” Mount said.
Mount’s video footage shows the whale spinning and flipping around just inches from the boat, occasionally spraying them from its blow hole.
“I could just touch it. It was just rubbing gently against the boat, going under, coming out,” said Mount, who has been an enthusiastic whale watcher for about four years.
Mount realized he could not escape as he did not know how the whale would react to the sudden sound of the engine, and was worried the boat’s propeller might cut the whale.
So they watched and waited.
Luckily, Mount said, the whale only hit the boat once with its fin, leaving a slight bend in the boat’s railing and a few minor scratches.
A marine specialist later identified the humpback to Mount as a young male named Neowise.
Mount said they were very lucky the whale was so aware of its body and didn’t do more damage.
“I’ll forget my name and who I am before I forget this … it felt really special sharing that moment,” said Mount.
Andrew Trites, director of the marine mammal research unit at the University of British Columbia, said despite hearing a few recent reports of humpbacks engaging with boats, this is the closest one he has seen.
“Nothing quite as extra special as this one,” said Trites.
Trites believes the whale might have been attracted to the boat’s depth sounder — a device that measure the depth of the water below a boat by using sound waves.
The high-frequency waves are similar to the sound whales use to communicate, according to Trites.
“For the humpback whale, this appears to be another living being that’s almost its own size, it’s something it can interact with,” said Trites.
Mount confirmed his depth sounder was on before he shut the boat off when he spotted the whale.
Trites said whales might not have full control over where their tail and fins are flopping, causing a potentially dangerous situation.
“These are gentle giants, but they can do a lot of damage unintentionally … it could be potentially lethal,” said Trites.
Trites said humpback whales were hunted to near-extinction about a century ago, and have only started reappearing off B.C.’s coast in the past 20 years.
As people encounter whales more, Trites said education is crucial to developing a mutually respectful relationship with the creatures.
He recommends boats keep distance — switching off a boat’s depth-sounder could be one way to do so, he said — and go at a slow pace when they spot a whale.
Whale you be mine?
It is typical for young male humpbacks to engage in playful behaviour, according to Trites.
He said while these humpback whales mate in the winter when they travel south, young males will often spend time practising their love songs prior to mating season.
“It may well have been that this young male was actually singing to the boat,” said Trites.
“They’ve got to practise with someone — why not a boat?”