Video Of The Day: Humpback Whale Gets Dangerously Close To Kayakers

A mother and daughter kayaking in Avila Beach along the coast of California get a surprise from a 30-ton humpback whale when it surfaces within just a few feet of their boats. You can tell the women are surprised from their screams (be sure to keep the volume low on this one).

“I quit filming it because the whale was still moving forward and it ran into me,” the daughter writes, adding she was forced to stop filming and paddle backwards before her kayak tipped over.

Luckily, besides the threat of the boat being overturned by the breaching whale, these giant marine mammals only eat krill and small fish and aren’t known to attack humans.

Video: Kayaker has rare encounter with a blue whale

Stretching for over 90 feet in length, and weighing more than 180 metric tons, the blue whale is, to the best of our knowledge, the largest animal that has ever lived. The creatures were hunted to near extinction in the early part of the 20th century, but appear to be making a comeback now.

A kayaker at Redondo Beach, California recently had the rare opportunity to see one of these magnificent creatures up close and personal, and lucky for us he was wearing a GoPro helmet cam at the time. The footage he captured is stunning, with some fantastic views of the whale, both above and below the water, giving viewers a true sense of the size of these animals.

I have to say, this guy is definitely braver than I am. Watching the whale from a kayak would be a humbling enough experience, but getting into the water, and seeing it pass by underneath, would be equal parts terrifying and awe inspiring.

Check out the video below.

Whale cut from net in Sea of Cortez

While rescuers search for the seven missing people who were aboard a boat that capsized in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez over the weekend, these waters are filled with more than tragedy. I stumbled upon this video of a whale being cut from a hunting net and set free and I couldn’t help but share. Members of the Great Whale Conservatory happened upon this trapped humpback whale in the Sea of Cortez. The whale-lovers cut the net off of the whale on the spot. Although it took some time, they came out of the experience with a happy and healthy whale as well as some excellent footage.

I visited the Sea of Cortez myself in March of 2009. I spent the day lounging with Sea Lions and watching dolphins follow our boat. I thought the sea was beautiful, serene and unmistakable. Watching this video of this whale rescue has completely made my day.

Hiking the Basque coastline

While the Sierra de Toloño offers some amazing trails and views, the most alluring sights I’ve seen in the Basque region are along its coastline.

The coast of northeast Spain and southwest France along the Bay of Biscay is part of the Basque heartland. Inland villages played a key role in keeping Basque culture alive, but it’s the ports–Bilbao, San Sebastian, and many smaller towns–that helped the Basques make their mark on world history.

Today I’m hiking a stretch of Spanish coastline east of San Sebastian and within sight of the French border. Much of my trail today corresponds with the famous Camino de Santiago. This pilgrimage route stretching from France to Galicia on the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula became popular in the Middle Ages. It’s still one of the most popular trails in Europe, with a record 200,000+ hikers last year.

I can see why. Our route takes us past little towns where churches once offered medieval pilgrims spiritual solace, vineyards growing on steep slopes leading down to the sea, and wide views of the water. The coastline here is rugged, with jagged rocks jutting up from the foamy surf and numerous little islands, some topped by churches and homes.

%Gallery-124603%One of these islands has an important history. It makes up part of the little port of Getaria, home to Juan Sebastián Elcano, the Basque people’s most famous sailor. He was one of Magellan’s officers on the explorer’s circumnavigation of the globe.

The journey started in 1519 with 241 men. That number quickly dropped due to malnutrition, disease, mutiny, and storms. When Magellan was killed in the Philippines in 1521, two other officers took joint command. They were killed by natives soon thereafter. Another officer took over, but he proved unpopular and when his ship sprung a leak, some men decided to follow Elcano in the only remaining vessel. They finally made it back to Spain in 1522 with only 18 of the original crew.

His hometown, shown above, isn’t very big and probably wasn’t much of anything 500 years ago. I can imagine Elcano climbing to the top of that little mountain on the island that dominates Getaria and looking out over the sweeping view of the Bay of Biscay. It’s not surprising such a place produced one of the world’s greatest sailors.

Continuing along the coast we find a slope covered in thick grass. Looking out on the sea, there’s a good view of Getaria to our left and to our right, almost lost in the distance, we spot the coastline of France. It’s a perfect place for a picnic and we feast on Spanish tortilla (a bit like a thick omelet with potatoes), cheese, bread, and fresh cherries. I’ve been on a lot of hikes in Spain and I’ve eaten well on all of them. This picnic takes the prize for best view, though.

This coastline made much of its wealth from whaling. Whale oil used to be the petrol of the world, lighting up the streetlamps of Paris and London and used in a variety of products. While whales enjoy some protection today, they were hunted by the thousand until early 20th century and came close to going extinct. Basque whalers were some of the most adventurous. When stocks were used up in the Bay of Biscay and other parts of the European coastline, Basque whalers went further afield to Siberia, Iceland, Greenland, and even the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact, they may have arrived in the New World before Columbus!

Our hike ends when we make it to the beach at Zarautz, an old whaling port turned resort. People are surfing and swimming, the smart ones wearing wetsuits to protect them from the cold water. When whaling died and the iron industry faltered, the Basque coast reinvented itself as a northern resort paradise for rich Europeans. San Sebastian, which I’m visiting in the next installment of this series, was one of the best. When you see the photos you’ll know why.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.

The effect of Japan’s tsunami on whaling

In an ironic twist of fate, Japan’s recent tsunami may have accomplished something conservationists have been fervently attempting for years: Driving a final nail into its pro-active whaling communities.

The first outsiders only recently reached the small town of Ayukawahama, which was crushed by thirty-foot waves. So was the headquarters of the biggest business in town, Ayukawa Whaling, one of the country’s most prodigious hunters of big whales.

The waves rushed six hundred feet inland, wiping out 80 percent of the town’s 700 homes. Four hundred of its 1,400 residents are missing, assumed dead. The peninsula town is described as having been reduced to “an expanse of splintered wood and twisted cars.”

In these days two weeks after the natural disaster the impact on the whaling town carries a kind of finality. Ayukawa lives off whaling. It is one of just four communities in Japan home to small fleets that twice a year hunt whales in waters close to Japan, differentiating them from the fleet that heads to the Southern Ocean each November.

“There is no Ayukawa without whaling,” said a 27-year-old whaler.The four boats of Ayukawa Whaling were sucked out to sea by the retreating tsunami waves, thrown back onto shore a mile down the coastline. The company’s 28 employees ran for the hills. All survived but have now been laid off.

The company’s chairman told the New York Times that while he hoped to rebuild the factory, refloat the company’s boats and get back to hunting whales, he admitted it wouldn’t be any time soon. It will take months and lots of money to pull his boats back onto the sea; his processing plant for whale meat was reduced to splinters.

Nearby the daughter of a 54-year-old woman scavenging for food found a tin of whale meat among the debris. “I wish we could eat whale meat every day,” said the 17-year-old. “But the whalers are so old, I think they’ll just quit or retire after what has happened.

“I think whaling is dead here.”

During the height of the Southern Ocean campaign which usually runs from November to March, many news stories can make it seem like whale hunting – and whale meat eating — is a passion for all Japanese. The reality is that Japan does not thrive on whale meat and there are increasingly fewer companies engaged in whale hunting.

Despite the success of the Sea Shepherd’s this past season – its successful harassment forcing the Japanese to end its season early and reducing its take by some 75 percent, to less than 200 whales – the tsunami waves may ultimately get credit for stopping the hunt.

If you follow the exploits of Sea Shepherd and its outspoken leader, Captain Paul Watson, you’d think they might be celebrating aboard its mother ship, the “Steve Irwin.” But Watson’s public reaction has been appropriately muted:

“Nature does not play favorites and just as the earthquake struck New Zealand recently, the fires ravaged Australia two years ago, and the tsunami struck India and Thailand not so very long ago, the message is clear — we all share the dangers of living on the water planet called earth,” he wrote.

“In the face of such peril from the forces of nature, we are all equal.

I have heard many people say that Japan’s tragedy is karma. People who say such things do not understand the concept of karma. This earthquake struck Japan purely on the basis of geography and geology.”

In another twist, the Japanese factory processing ship “Nisshin Maru,” which the Shepherd’s had hounded back to port a month early, is being used by the Japanese government to deliver aid supplies (charcoal, 100,000 noodle cups, kerosene, cranes) to the hard-hit north.

“Sea Shepherd believes that the ‘Nisshin Maru’ should be permanently converted into a humanitarian aid vessel,” suggested its website.

But the Japanese have rebuilt from the dust before and started over, with great success. One Ayukawa whaler was quoted two days after the tsunami: “As long as there are people who will carry on whaling in the absence of vessels or facilities, whaling could be revived … eventually.”