TOM DEXEL was rowing over
the deep Monterey Bay submarine canyon when he heard something that
sounded like a shotgun blast.
He was in the open ocean, rowing in the annual contest that runs 24 miles
across the bay from Santa Cruz to Monterey, so he was surprised by the
But when he looked over his shoulder, all he saw was the spray from a
whale in the distance.
So Tom kept rowing.
Five minutes later, the noise came again, as a whale surfaced only 100
yards away, spouting noisily from its blowhole.
A lot of folks might have panicked at the idea of facing down a blue
whale, the biggest mammal on the planet, in a boat that weighed 38 pounds.
But not Tom, 60, a longtime rower and a real estate broker with Alain
"I was enthusiastic," he said. "Fear? That wasnít even in my system."
Suddenly, the huge whale surfaced right in front of the bow of Tomís boat.
"I jammed my oars into the water in time to avoid a collision," Tom said.
His boat stopped mere feet from the mammal.
"Did you see that?" he yelled back to his safety boat, which each of the
rowers was required to have.
But like any good racer, and because he was rowing to raise funds for the
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Tom kept rowing as one whale ó and then a
second ó surfaced nearby and began to swim near him as he rowed.
"For almost an hour, or about five miles, these two whales continued to
travel the same direction I was going, at a distance of 50 to 75 yards,"
Once, a whale raised a mighty fluke into the air behind him, and GUIDO
DIAZ, who piloted the safety boat, snapped a picture.
Tomís boat is 21 feet long. From the picture, Tom figured, the whaleís
fluke was about 24-25 feet across.
Guido told Tom he had seen a calf swimming with the blue whales and what
he thought was the distinctive dorsal fin of an orca, which have attacked
baby whales in the past. The whales may have mistaken Tomís white boat for
one of the orcas, Tom said.
UC Santa Cruz field biologist and professor TERRIE WILLIAMS, who works
with dolphins and whales, said the forceful loud blows the whales made are
"a typical cetacean response when they become angry or disturbed."
When dolphins do it, Terrie said, "itís one of the first signals for us to
get out of the water."
Sheís not sure, she said, why the whales were disturbed, but the submarine
canyon is a prime whale feeding ground.
As for Tom, he said he realizes it could have been a dangerous situation,
but he saw the experience as "a gift."
Tom, by the way, completed his row in four hours, 11 minutes, even though
the whales threw him off course for a time, he said.