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Extremely rare ‘friendly’ gray whale encounter captured in photos

For The Win logo For The Win 12/28/2018 Pete Thomas

a man riding a wave on a surfboard in the water: File Photo

File Photo
© File Photo
(The accompanying photos, courtesy of Mark Girardeau of Newport Coastal Adventure and Dale Frink of Davey's Locker Whale Watching, illustrate the intimate nature of these encounters.)

About 27,000 gray whales are migrating from summer feeding grounds off Alaska to winter nursing and mating grounds in the tranquil lagoons of Mexico's Baja California peninsula.

When they settle into this environment some will become curious and approach tourists in small boats. Some will even allow themselves to be caressed.

This behavior is almost exclusive to those lagoons, but on Wednesday the phenomenon was on full display off Newport Beach in Southern California. Two gray whales spent most of the day swimming from vessel to vessel, surfacing alongside them, often within touching distance (although touching whales in U.S. waters is illegal).

Ryan Lawler, owner of Newport Coastal Adventure, told FTW Outdoors, "Although this species is well known for its boat-friendly behavior when it reaches Mexican wintering grounds, none of us at Newport Coastal Adventure had ever seen anything like this in Orange County.

"For over six hours the whales were constantly seeking out interaction with a variety of boats, both big and small."

Boaters in U.S. waters are not supposed to approach within 100 yards of whales, but when whales initiate close encounters the best course is to remain idle and allow them to play out.

Girardeau said passengers were in awe on each of Newport Coastal Adventure's four excursions. "They couldn't believe what was happening," the photographer said. "Especially when the whales came up to our boat. People didn't know what to do; whether to be worried or excited."

Many were first-time whale watchers on vacation for the holidays. "I had to tell them at the end of the trip that this is not normal," Girardeau said. "I told them, 'Don't expect this to happen every time you go whale watching.' "

The same whales were encountered Thursday off San Diego, before they crossed into Mexican waters.

-Photos are courtesy of Mark Girardeau of Newport Coastal Adventure (top five images) and Dale Frink of Davey's Locker Whale Watching

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