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How likely are whales to overturn you in a kayak?


Jun 22, 2021
Eugene, OR
So while paddling off the Oregon Coast yesterday, I had my first semi-close encounter with a whale. I've seen them farther away, but in this case, I was startled when a gray whale (likely one of our resident whales who live off the central Oregon coast year-round) surfaced about 50 feet away from me. (I was NOT expecting it!) The whale was feeding, because it dove, bringing its tail fluke gracefully out of the water.

It was, of course, a thrilling and awe-inspiring encounter...but moments after seeing the whale so close, my next thought was "Oh sh*t—I'm really tiny and that whale is gigantic!" Visions of some YouTube video of a humpback surfacing under a kayaker, tossing the boat into the air, flashed through my head...and my next thought was "I better get the heck out of here!" so I sprinted away from the whale's direction of travel until I was a good hundred yards away.

Was I being silly to basically flee? Are incidents of whales coming into physical contact with a kayak as rare as lightning strikes? Or are they pretty common if you paddle around whales a lot? (Are whales ever curious about kayakers? Or do they totally ignore them?) I just want to get a better handle on this so next time, I'll know whether I can totally relax and enjoy the show? Or run like hell? :)

Oh, and of course I did NOT get video or a photo. :-( Which almost makes me think I need to keep a mounted GoPro rolling all the time to actually capture something like that on video, LOL.
Whales generally appear to be very aware of their surroundings. It pays for them not to hit their heads on floating driftwood and other obstacles in the water, so I think they are typically paying attention to their environment. That said, when they are actively feeding, consider them highly distracted and paying less attention to you on the surface. I generally never feel at any sort of threat from a traveling whale, but I am more careful around them when they are obviously feeding. I’ve had humpbacks, gray whales, and orcas swim right under my kayak. A humpback even rolled on its side and looked at me from a few feet under my boat. In Prince William Sound I was floating in the path of a pod of 30+ orcas, and I could tell from the puddles of disturbed water around my kayak that some had intended to surface at my location and then veered back down under the water to avoid me. And having a breaching whale land on you is basically rarer than a lightning strike.

I will add that I have similarly never felt any particular threat from any marine mammal, including Steller sea lions here in Alaska. The young ones can be curious and they will dart around you and snort, etc., but I’ve only ever heard of a kayak being tapped by a sea lion flipper on one occasion. The worst thing that’s ever happened to me was I was pursued by a 5-foot lingcod once. If you’ve ever seen the teeth on those things you will understand how unnerving that would be.
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There was one popular YouTube video, a while back, of a whale landing on a kayak. Turns out it was a "fraud". Or more to be fair, the people who produced it had a reputation for that kind of creativity for commercial clips. That's to say, they didn't intend to deceive. but just as some people thought the radio program, "War of the Worlds" was real, some people thought that clip was real and it went viral.

I'm not saying a breaching whale landing on a kayak couldn't/wouldn't happen. It's just that I think the video was fake.

Read this: https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/kayak-attack/
Note: It may take longer than usual for the page to come up.
Thanks Philip and cougarmeat—you confirmed my suspicions that whales aren't really a threat to kayakers. We don't have a lot of whales down here in Oregon, but do have a number of year-round resident gray whales that rove along the central coast. I've rarely seen them (from shore or while paddling) so was definitely kinda shocked to find one feeding so close!
How likely are whales to ....turn you in a kayak?

Fairly likely if the whale is lonely.
Can't happen (to me.)

Whales don't walk 1100 miles over mountains very well. So I am safe, thus far at least.

And I never take my kayak into WalMart, so those 'whales' are not a threat either.
I have spent a fair amount of time around whales, mostly gray and humpbacks.

I see the grays when they are covering distance between Baja and their feeding waters in north. Only rarely have I been around residents feeding (a few that decided to stay off of NorCal). So mostly talking those commuting whales. They generally don't know where kayakers/boaters are in advance, but do see us when they get close and adjust as they need to avoid us. Below is a video from a few years back off of California's Channel Islands at about Xmas when a couple of southbound commuting whales passed by us (I am in the green boat, so not the one taking the video). At one point you will see a whale footprint (but no whale) when the whale saw us and changed from taking a breath to staying under (the footprint is the water flow boiling up).

Humpback whales I usually see when feeding. They are in an area with food and stay there until they are full or run out of food. Not that uncommon to have the whales make a pass past us to check us out. Had a pair that turned toward us and followed us as we tried to paddle out of its course, and they made their dive at the last minute (within paddle length of some of our group). Also have had others that swam under me, and made noticeable change s to their surfacing/breathing pattern when doing so (if they didn't, they would have surfaced under me).

A whale surfacing to breath under you isn't likely dangerous. Tail, chin, or pec slaps could be. Breaching (the whale lunging much or all of its body out of the water) definitely could be. That probably is the most dangerous thing, and also with the whale coming up from deep, most likely they might do it without knowing where you are. If you can, watch this documentary https://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/whale-detective-preview-fbibbs/20496/ - or at l;east the preview):
Super rare to have this happen. And the whales you were around, gray whales, are not known for chin slaps, pec slaps, tail slaps, or breaching.
The other Philip weighs in. Pretty much what Philip K said. I've had whales surfacing pretty close to me several times over the years, and they seem to be pretty aware of my presence. Even when, as in the clip below, they're moving pretty fast and exuberantly. (You can hear me exclaiming and swearing a bit when I realize they're right on course for me.)
<iframe width="560" height="315" src="
" title="YouTube video player" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe>

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Recently, my wife and I were paddling parallel to three humpbacks near Read Island, BC, at a respectable distance. As we sat still for a while, however, they started to slowly come closer to us - maybe out of curiosity. They took a little more time surfacing, and we could see their large eyes staying up a bit longer, presumably to see what/where we were. They disappeared for a short while and then to our alarm, came up about 40 ft from us which was totally thrilling (thankfully we were upwind from their stinky breath!) but calmly went under again. They seem like gentle giants but as mentioned, you'd probably want to stay far away if they are breaching.

A friend of mine was paddling in Haida Gwaii when a whale (not sure if grey or humpback) actually started to surface under her kayak. They were both startled, and as she started to be lifted off the water, the whale seemed to feel something was there and slowly dropped back down into the ocean. Amazingly, my friend didn't capsize but her heart was pounding like crazy!

When it comes to seals or sea lions, however, that's a bit of a different story as they can be cheeky and rambunctious. The very young and the bulls will come a lot closer (esp at Race Rocks) and can dart around incredibly fast. I'm more wary of sea lions than whales. While I've never had a threatening encounter, it can be understandably unnerving the first few times though when you encounter some huge creatures out there. Once you get past that, it's wonderful to have them be so curious around you.
This must be while back. Kayakwriter appears to be running a Pacific Action Sail./QUOTE]

Actually that's my current rudder boat, the Tyee. The upright sail is the sadly no-longer made Spirit Sail. The lowered sail is a Falcon sail.
When we were paddling in Haida Gwaiis, one day a whale came rather close to one of our group. I made sure I stayed in the kelp.
As for seals, when you get a couple of youngsters clambering on to your aft deck and a tippy empty kayak, you do notice it. The area, Abel Tasman National Park has so may kayakers passing by that the seals tend to ignore them unless you get into the "pond" where the juveniles are playing.
"Oh, here's a game we can play.", clamber, clamber, clamber....
I was told by a Marine Biologist at Broughton Archipelago that Orcas are well aware of kayakers and not a danger, but to keep well clear of humpbacks because they are oblivious. We did have a pod of Orcas surround us while paddling off Telegraph Cove and they seemed more curious than dangerous.
Last week I was in Surge Narrows playing in the current when a pod of 5 Orcas surrounded me while also going with the flow. I've had many encounters with Orcas over the years and have never felt in danger. I do agree that Humpbacks are more oblivious and because their numbers are climbing, sightings are becoming fairly common. They do move a lot slower than Orcas, so there is plenty of time to get out of the way. I've had some close encounter with Greys and Humpbacks along the west coast of VI, but still felt that there was a safe short distance. I think you have more chances to win the lottery than colliding with a whale... and the odds don't look good for the lottery!