Two kayakers get an up-close encounter with a humpback whale Monday in Monterey… (Shmuel Thaler / Santa Cruz…)
The humpback whales on an extended pit stop off Santa Cruz may be just too popular for their own good.
As the marine giants have steered unusually close to shore to feed, locals and visitors alike have paddled, sailed and motored out in a frenzied flotilla to greet them up close.
So close, authorities say, that the sightseers are putting themselves at risk of being seriously injured or even killed. Already, kayaks have been flipped over and a sailboat's mast was snapped when a whale blasted up from below.
In recent days, dozens of kayaks, sailboats, powerboats and snorkelers on surfboards and boogie boards have surrounded the 40-foot mammals en masse as the whales have erupted from the ocean less than a mile from the city's harbor.
For many sightseers, the proximity offers the chance of a lifetime: to get within arm's reach of a whale as it scoops up fish, snap pictures so unbelievable they seem photo-shopped and even swim with the majestic creatures as they surface.
But federal wildlife officials say the crowds are more of a nuisance than a welcome mat. Such close contact puts both human and cetacean in danger.
Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the whales' up-close admirers underestimate the threat of being struck by a humpback's 40-ton body or its powerful fins and flukes.
"If you're right above them, you're likely to get nailed pretty hard," said Scott Kathey, federal regulatory coordinator for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which extends from some 30 miles offshore to the city's shoreline.
"Most people don't get in close proximity of an 18-wheeler when it's maneuvering," he added, "and these whales are that size."
Wildlife officials and the U.S. Coast Guard this week boosted enforcement patrols and dispatched volunteer kayakers to warn whale watchers to keep their distance. They say some boaters are approaching so brazenly they are probably breaking laws that bar harassment of federally protected marine mammals,
An eye-popping photo of a pair of feeding humpbacks lunging out of the water a paddle's length from a kayaker raised the concern of wildlife officials, who believed it could attract even more adventure-minded sightseers. The image, shot last week by a photographer on assignment for the Santa Cruz County Conference & Visitors Council, was published in newspapers across the state, including the Los Angeles Times.
Paul Schraub, who snapped the photo from about 100 feet away on a sailboat, said he now feels guilty that his photo may have inspired others to draw too near to the whales.
"Unfortunately my picture kind of makes it look like it's a big ride," Schraub said. "It would be good if people used some common sense."
Some local tour operators said the behavior has gotten out of hand. "It's kind of a zoo," said Dave Johnston, owner of Venture Quest Kayaking, who is suspending rentals because he fears for customers' safety.
Most observe from a safe distance and come back beaming, Johnston said. "But there are some people who are crazy and think 20 or 30 feet away is not close enough. They want to get as close as possible and try to touch the whale. They don't realize the whale can kill them."
Humpbacks can burst from the water without warning, throwing their flukes and fins with incredible force, particularly when they feed by lunging up through schools of fish to catch them by the mouthful.
A late-season smorgasbord of anchovies amassed close to the Santa Cruz shore has drawn half a dozen humpbacks eager to bulk up for their annual migration to Mexico. The human incursions add an ongoing distraction that wildlife managers say could undermine the whales' health and nutrition.
The marine sanctuary advises wildlife watchers not to get within 100 yards of the whales and to avoid crossing in front of them, pursuing them from behind or surrounding them. If a whale approaches, they say, drift until it moves away.
Authorities are hoping stern warnings from patrol boats will persuade boaters to strike the proper balance. But if that doesn't work, the potential $2,500 citations the boaters could receive might.
Last weekend, when no fewer than 100 kayakers converged on the whales, wildlife officials suspect the crowds exasperated the creatures enough that they swam away.
"It's possible that the impacts of so many people pursuing these whales may have led them out of this area, that it may have disrupted their feeding," said Kathey, who said he hasn't seen anything like it in 17 years working for the marine sanctuary.
"People can watch them, they just need to not be on top of them," he said. "They need to give them some space."