A Southern California surfer has learned the hard way not to come between a momma gray whale and her baby.
Captain Dennis Longaberger's Sunset Kidd boat tour group was watching two mother whales nurse their babies Friday off the Santa Barbara coast when a surfer paddled out in the middle of them.
The group gasped as suddenly, Longaberger said one mother used one of her large pectoral fins to smack him away from her baby. The force brought the surfer down under water for roughly 30 seconds.
His blue soft top surfboard shot about 5 feet in the air. Finally, the surfer resurfaced, grabbing his board and paddling back to the beach, where a bystander took him to the hospital.
"He got smacked down," Longaberger said. "It wasn't like she was out to kill him. She was like `No, you're not supposed to be over here.' This is a large animal, about 45 feet long, and her fin's got some serious power."
On Monday, the surfer looked up Longaberger to compare notes. He'd only seen one whale and couldn't clearly tell what was happening. Longaberger said he appeared to be black and blue all over, but had no broken bones.
The gray whales travel down to Mexico to give birth in warmer waters before traveling up along the coast toward Alaska, where there is more food, said Longaberger, who's watched whales for 27 years.
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Because killer whales frequently lie in wait along the California coast during this time of year, the gray whales will travel closer to shore to protect their babies, stopping occasionally to give them milk.
The mother will turn her belly sideways, her tail tipped out of the water, as her baby tees up next to her to drink.
It's around this time too that surfers, kayakers and beach-based bystanders are more frequently able to see the whales and come into contact with them.
"As long as you're not aggressive to these animals, these animals are extremely courteous," Longaberger said. "For such a huge animal they eat really little tiny things, they're mammals like we are. They're the most hospitable animals."
He added: "But they've got to defend their child like anyone would."