Stefan Everingham got more than he bargained for while chasing waves at Middle Rock on Saturday, February 10 after he had an up close encounter with a whale.
“It was one time I was glad there were other surfers out there in the water so that people would believe me when I told them the story,” he said.
Stefan was surfing at about 11am and had just caught a wave. He was paddling out when he saw the whale just outside the breakers.
“I thought it was amazing to see it so close,” he said.
Stefan said the whale was chasing bait fish towards Middle Rock and once it got to the peak it turned 90 degrees quickly to catch a wave.
“It was absolutely flying through the wave and just missed two other surfers who were sitting on the peak,” he said.
“The whale turned 90 degrees to go across the wave and went straight underneath me in shallow water.”
Once the whale lost momentum, Stefan said its tail rose and just clipped the side of his board, which knocked him back and down under.
“It all happened so quick, I was in shock,” he said.
While the whale only clipped the board, Stefan said it resulted in a chunk being taken out of it and the rail has been cracked.
Stefan said he was lucky he wasn’t more seriously injured.
Stefan disagrees with the recent ban the Catholic Diocese of Lismore has placed on parish schools for surfing and surf-related activities at beaches not protected by shark nets.
Stefan said shark nets harm the environment and would stop surfers from experiencing special moments with wildlife.
NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service North Coast Branch ranger Andy Marshall has collected a skin sample from Stefan’s board to verify the species through DNA testing.
Andy said the whale is almost certainly from a group of species or subspecies collectively known as Brydes Whales.
“Generally they grow to an adult size at around 10 to 14 metres, similar to a Humpback Whale, but very sleek and streamlined,” he said.
“They aren't particularly flamboyant in terms of behaviours we can easily see, like breaching, so they can easily go unnoticed despite being maybe 12 to 20 tonne animals.”
Andy said at this time of year there tend to be big spawning schools of bait fish species which often hug the coast, and attract a variety of predators from birds to larger fish, sharks, dolphins and occasionally Brydes Whales.
“So while its not a common or predictable occurrence to see Brydes Whales off our coast, it is not entirely unexpected or out of character given the prey around,” he said.
History of stranding
Andy said despite their apparent familiarity with hunting in shallow coastal waters occasionally, they do strand.
“In our area of the Mid North Coast there have been a number of strandings in the past few decades which were confirmed as one of the Brydes Whales group of species/subspecies,” he said.
The most infamous was possibly "Willy" who spent 101 days entrapped in the Manning River (1995), presumably after chasing a school of baitfish into the river mouth and then becoming disoriented.
More recent actual strandings (resulting in the death of the animal) were at Big Hill Beach (Nov 2009) Dunbogan Beach (Dec 2003) and Crowdy Beach (Dec 2006).
Status of species
Andy said given the taxonomic confusion about the Brydes Whales it’s hardly surprising that their conservation status and global population is so poorly known that they are officially listed as "data deficient".
“Meaning there's not enough known to be sure whether their populations are stable, vulnerable or at threat,” he said.
“A very crude estimate is that there may be 100,000 which sounds like a lot, but compared to some other species is actually pretty low numbers for a global population.”
Andy said it is clear the species are impacted by current human activities, and that we are probably placing pressure on their populations.
“Particularly through exposure to plastics which they often ingest while feeding on schooling fish close to our coast and where lots of plastic debris washes through stormwater systems and out of our rivers into the ocean,” he said.
“The other potential threat is entanglement in nets or other fishing equipment or debris, with a number of known cases globally in recent years including one in Australia.”
Andy said it is worth reminding the community about the restrictions on intentionally approaching whales and dolphins, both for the protection of people and the whales.
“These animals live pretty close to the edge of survival, and interrupting feeding activity (or migration or breeding, etc) could impact their energy budget for the day or potentially their health in the longer term, so give them their space, and enjoy watching from a safe distance if/when you get the chance,” he said.
“Approach distances also apply to drones and aircraft too, so don't be tempted to get that "viral video" just for fun, because it may cost the critter in changes to its behaviour with those subsequent consequences, and it’s likely to be a bit offensive to other whale watchers anyhow.”