A father and son were fishing for striped bass and tuna off the Jersey Shore near Belmar on Wednesday when they hooked a prize memory: A massive humpback whale breached the sea inches from them.
The son, Zach Piller, 23, of the Philadephia area, captured the moment on video. The water boiled with activity, with dozens of small fish jumping from the sea, before the humpback's head emerged next to the duo's small boat.
"Uh-oh," Piller is heard saying just before the animal breached the surface and raised its head above the boat's midships.
“Got that on video!”Piller said among excited swearing.
The whale's head landed with a splash, and soon it was deep in the sea.
Piller said that small fish are abundant and nearshore this time of year, attracting whales and other animals that eat them. The weather was exceptionally nice Wednesday, with the high above 70 degrees and the water calm and glassy, Piller said.
Piller was on an 18-foot Starcraft built by his father. It’s based at a marina in Belmar.
Eric Otjen, SeaWorld San Diego vice president of zoological operations said apparent humpback whales feeding on small fish near shore is nothing unusual, but breaching near a boat is.
“This whale just happened to chase bait fish right next to a boat,” he said. “The feeding part is common. Being that close to the boat is not. You probably have a better chance of winning the lottery. It popped up where it popped up.”
Otjen said it’s possible the mammal was engaging in bubble-net feeding, in which humpback whales dive below a school of fish, blow bubbles in a circle around them to act as a virtual net, and then head for the surface, mouths open, to scoop up the fish.
"The guys on the boat had an experience of a lifetime," he said. "A lot of people would pay a lot of money to see what they saw."
Experts say humpbacks may use breaches to communicate because the resulting collision with the surface creates sound waves that travel far. They might also slap their fins for the same reason.
The Jersey Shore has been unusually active when it comes to whale sightings since at least July. And, reaching back to 2011, humpbacks have been staying longer for feeding season, possibly to feast on Atlantic menhaden, a small fish they prefer, researchers say.
Though the nearshore activity could be a sign that the endangered species is rebounding following the dark ages of hunting them for oil, scientists are concerned that boat traffic and fishing lines are posing serious threats.
On Sept. 26, the SeaWorld San Diego Rescue Team, as part of the West Coast Large Whale Entanglement Response Program, helped to disentangle a humpback whale from 300 feet of lines and buoys that appeared to be from crab fishing, the park said.
The park’s rescuers, joined off the coast of Carlsbad, California by responders from federal and local jurisdictions, were able to see the mammal set off for deeper climes.
“We celebrate and all that stuff, but we really want to not have to do it,” Otjen said.