December 20, 2012

A close encounter with a humpback whale

Coastal Review Online

Chris Hill surfs on a paddleboard.  In fact, he does it professionally. That means he's on the water a lot and is accustomed to sharing the ocean off this beach town on Topsail Island with a variety of sea creatures.

“I’m used to seeing a lot of animals,” says Hill, known as “Chill” to paddlers. “Sharks. Things like that.”

Hill was on his paddleboard about 100 yards from shore near the Surf City Pier around noon one recent Sunday. Something big broke the water about two pier lengths off the beach.

“When that humpback popped up, I had to paddle out to it,” he says. “I had never seen one while paddling. It was a no-brainer really.”

On the beach, under the pier, Steve Young was doing what he normally does. He was shooting photos of surfers and the ocean. He had seen the whale moving up the beach and had taken a few photos of it.

“I wasn’t very happy with them because they didn’t give you a sense of scale,” he says.

Then he spotted Hill paddling out towards the humpback. Young focused his camera on Hill and hoped that the whale would surface again. It did. Young hit the shutter button.

“I really didn’t think anything about it, and went home and started editing,” Young, a retired firefighter from Jacksonville, explains. “I put the photo on my Facebook page. Then it really took off.”

The picture shows an upright Hill on his paddleboard, silhouetted against the bright sky and surrounded by a dead-calm blue ocean. The dark solitary figure looks to be walking on water. The big, arched back of the whale seems to be just yards away.  It is a picture of both serenity and power, of mere man and mighty beast.

It is also the kind of picture that Facebook and other social media sites seem to be made for. Hill, who lives in Surf City, made it the wall photo on the Facebook page of Ohana Paddle Sports, the business he and his wife, Jennifer, own in that town. Hundreds of people shared it with hundreds more, who passed it on. And like that it quickly went around the globe.

“Spiritual,” commented Susan Ballenger of South Carolina.

“That’s sweet,” wrote Matthew Johnson of Holland, Mich.

“Wow. You got blessed with this one,” noted Bonnie Ann Evans of Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

 “Magnifique,” wrote Francoise Espina of Paris.

“It was pretty cool,” Hill agrees.

Endangered humpback whales are among the most easily recognized of the whale species. Reaching between 40 and 50 feet in length, a humpback can weigh up to 48 tons. Their large flippers, almost one-third of their body size, and the hump on their backs distinguish them from other whales.  Their color ranges anywhere from a gray to black and they have white markings on their undersides that are unique to every whale. These markings are like fingerprints, allowing researchers to identify individuals.

Humpbacks are a fairly common sight along the N.C. coast in the winter when they migrate from Arctic waters to calving grounds in the tropics.

Though the whales usually travel in groups, Hill only saw one during his encounter. And it was big, he says, about 50 feet long.

“It was the length of a bus,” Hill, 44, says. “Big enough that I didn’t want to get too close. I stayed about 12 feet away.”

Twelve feet? Maybe that’s why they call him Chill.

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