It’s a whale of a tale.
Scott Earl, 32, of Orange says he was motorboating to Santa Catalina Island on placid seas Saturday when a gigantic gray whale lifted him and his boat straight out of the water.
“I looked down and I was right behind its blowhole,” Earl said. “I thought, ‘I’m dead.’ I got up about eight feet high, I was standing, and the whale tossed me to the port side of the boat.”
Earl said he fell from his boat, a 20-foot fiberglass-bottomed inflatable raft named Tank Tender, straight down into the ocean.
“I felt a giant pulling, like the whale was trying to bring me down. Then I was pushed straight back up, like it was trying to push me out of the way with its tail,” Earl said. “I think it might have been a mother trying to protect its cub.”
The seasonal migration of the Pacific or California gray whales from Alaskan waters to their nursing grounds off Baja California is currently under way, and the waters off Orange County are en route. Mothers, babies and big males all make the trip. The whales are 15 feet at birth, but can grow up to 45 feet long and reach 35 to 45 tons.
Earl said he was about 11 miles out from the mainland when he struck the whale about 10:20 a.m. After coming back up to the surface, he noticed “a bit of blood” in the water and figured the mammal had been wounded by the propeller of his boat, which was going about 40 mph when he was hit. He remembered the excellent shark fishing he had done in that area in past years and scrambled to crawl up on the hull of his overturned boat.
There he sat for more than an hour, he said, while about ten boats passed him by as he waved, shouted, cried, and in frustration, “flipped them off.”
Finally, he said, a Norwegian fishing vessel carrying an elderly man and woman and their two grandchildren stopped and tried to help him wrest the heavy, expensive motor of the boat to safety. A yacht named the Asmara pulled up next and used the sail crank on its mast to overturn the capsized inflatable boat.
“They were wonderful,” said Earl of his rescuers on the Asmara. “They could have really messed up their very expensive boat, but they didn’t care, they just said, ‘Let’s get this boat turned over.’ ”
A Coast Guard helicopter from the Los Angeles-Long Beach command arrived at the scene, followed by rescue units from Cabrillo and Avalon and a 41-foot Coast Guard boat.
“Operator stated it was a case of an accident due to hitting a whale at high speed,” confirmed Coast Guard Petty Officer Brent Rahe. “Case closed.”
Rahe said because the vessel had not sunk, there would not be an investigation.
Earl was towed by the Coast Guard cutter to Avalon, where, he said, he bought himself some dry clothes, had a hot shower and got a free haircut from an old-time barber who told him the last time someone had collided with a whale in the area was 30 years ago.
Remains of a whale washed ashore in Newport Beach late Monday afternoon near 28th Street, Newport Beach Police Sgt. David Szkaradek said. It apparently was not connected to Earl’s mishap. An expert from a natural history museum viewed the remains and said the whale had probably died somewhere in the western Pacific and was carried to the beach by currents, he said.
Earl, who on Jan. 2 started his own business cleaning out the waste tanks of boats, said his insurance company told him the incident was a freak of nature and would not be covered. He said he lost several thousand dollars worth of equipment, in addition to the repairs needed to the boat.
Earl’s boat is currently at a repair shop in Huntington Beach, but he says he’ll be back out at sea as soon as possible.