December 20, 2012
A close encounter with a humpback whale
By FRANK TURSI
Coastal Review Online
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
“I’m used to seeing a lot of animals,” says Hill, known as “Chill” to paddlers. “Sharks. Things like that.”
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.
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.
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
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.