MOSS LANDING - Karen Hatch got the rush of a lifetime last week when two marine giants suddenly rushed at her while she was sitting on a kayak in the middle of Monterey Bay.
The 43-year-old Santa Cruz resident wanted a close encounter with a humpback whale, but not this close. Expecting to be dumped into the chilly waters of the bay, she clutched the side of her tiny boat when the whales suddenly dived just feet from her boat, ducking under the surface without spraying her with so much as a drop of water.
"It was incredible. It was very humbling experience," said Hatch, who estimated one at little more than 15 feet away. "I was struck by how obviously sensitive and aware they are of their surroundings."
The extraordinary moment was captured on film. In the picture, Hatch seems surrounded by the whale, isolated from the landscape by the whale's hulk.
"Not only are they very in touch with their surroundings, but they're very graceful," said Giancarlo Thomae, a marine biologist who suggested the kayaking voyage to Hatch, who works at Kayak Connection in Moss Landing.
"These whales could easily come up to us and flip us with their tails and kill us, but they don't want to," Thomae said.
Thomae took the picture with a Nikon D7000 with a 70mm-300mm lens. Of late, whales have been hanging out very close to shore, and the picture was taken not far from Moss Landing Marine Laboratory. A lens of that length tends to "compress" images, making objects appear closer than they actually are.
With the spread of social media, humpbacks have been the stars of several popular photos and videos taken on the Monterey Bay in recent years, including 2011 footage of lunge-feeding whales near a bikini-clad surfer that went viral.
But there are strict federal rules about whale watching, including maintaining a proper 100-yard buffer from whales and avoiding cutting off their path. Thomae said they followed those rules, but it is not unusual for humpbacks in particular to become curious and get close to onlookers.
"Sometimes they actually become friendly. We've had them come up to the boat and stay with us for over an hour," said Thomae, who works for Sanctuary Cruises.
Hatch said the whales became even friendlier once whale-watching boats cleared out of the area. Then two surfaced and headed straight for her kayak.
"It turned out to be a fantastic day. Better than we ever could dream of," Hatch said, who has told several friends about the encounter.
"It was just a stroke of luck that he got the photo the way that he did," she said.