As It Happens

'It was crazy,' says California kayaker who was engulfed in a whale's mouth

Julie McSorley says she learned an important lesson after she and her friend were nearly swallowed by a humpback: "Whales need their space."

Julie McSorley says she has learned her lesson about getting too close to feeding humpbacks

Sam Mcmillan of Atuscadero, Calif., was out snapping photos of humpback whales in San Luis Obispo Bay when he saw one whale breach the surface directly under a pair of kayakers. (Sam McMillan Photography)

Julie McSorley says she learned an important lesson after she and her friend ended up in a humpback's mouth: "Whales need their space."

McSorley and Liz Cottriel were kayaking together in California's San Luis Obispo Bay on Monday morning, watching the whales feed on silverfish, when one of the massive sea creatures surfaced beneath them, toppling their kayak and knocking them into the water. 

Videos and photos from other kayakers and paddlers appear to show the women and their kayak being momentarily engulfed in the whale's mouth — though the two friends say it all happened too fast for them to be sure. 

"It's definitely woke me up to the realization that, you know, our place is not in the feeding zone of whales," McSorley told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"We didn't think we were that close, but we definitely were right in the area that we shouldn't have been — so I've learned my lesson, big time."

  • The following video contains strong language:

Humpback whales have been active lately in Luis Obispo Bay near Avila Beach, drawing kayakers and paddlers to the area to watch them feed.

McSorley had already been out to watch them once, so when her friend came to town for a visit, she asked her if she wanted to go.

"Her reaction was, 'No, I don't like the ocean. I'm scared of sharks. I'm scared of anything I can't see in the water.' And I so ignorantly told her, 'Oh, they're never going to dump you over. The kayaks are very stable. I've never had an issue,'" McSorley said.

"And so she reluctantly came with me just to have a new experience."

This photo by Sam Mcmillan of Atuscadero, Calif., shows Liz Cottriel, right, and Julie McSorley, left, kayaking in California’s San Luis Obispo Bay. (Sam McMillan Photography)

For the first hour or so, the friends followed a pair of humpbacks as they fed. They would spot the swarms of fish — or "bait balls" — at a distance, watch the whales surface for a munch, wait a few minutes, and then move to the place the whales had just been.

They were sitting peacefully in their kayak waiting to see where the next bait ball would show up, when the little fish suddenly appeared all around them. 

"So I knew it was going to be very close, but again, I'd seen whales breach right next kayaks before. So my mind was like, this is going to be, you know, super cool," McSorley said.

"And then all of a sudden the boat lifted up and we were dumped in the water very, very quickly."

This shot by Sam Mcmillan of Atuscadero, Calif., shows a kayak paddle sticking out of the whale's mouth after it surfaced between Cottriel and McSorley. (Sam McMillan Photography)

Cottriel could see the inside of the whale's mouth coming down on them, but mistook it at the time for its belly. Panicked and confused, she threw up her hand to stop it. 

"I'm thinking to myself, 'I'm going to push. Like, I'm going to push a whale out of the way. It was the weirdest thought. I'm thinking, 'I'm dead. I'm dead.' I thought it was going land on me," Cottriel told the local Fox News affiliate.

"Next thing I know, I'm under water."

McSorley says it all happened so fast that the only thing she remembers is feeling the boat rise, and then finding herself beneath the surface. 

"Once we were in the water, we didn't know where we were — if we were under the whale, if we were sucked down with the whales," she said.

"So both of us ... ended up popping up right next to the kayak and next to each other. It was crazy."

Cottriel, left, and McSorley, right. (Submitted by Julie McSorley and Liz Cottriel)

Sam Mcmillan was nearby taking photos of the whales at the time. He told As It Happens that he just knew he was going to get a good shot when he saw the size of the bait ball. 

But it wasn't until he heard people shouting "Are you OK?" that he realized there were two people and a kayak mixed in with the fish and the whale.

"I checked on Julie and Liz to make sure they were OK, but it wasn't until I got home and saw the photos that I had taken, where you can see that they were right in the whale's mouth, that I realized just what had happened," he said. 

McSorley says she and Cottriel didn't realize it either, until other kayakers came to their rescue.

"They were telling us, 'You were in the mouth, you were in the whale's mouth!" McSorley said. "But we didn't have any idea at that time. And it didn't really hit us until we watched the video later."

McSorley, meanwhile, says she won't be kayaking again when the whales are out unless she can keep a football field's distance from the creatures.

"I'll definitely kayak in the ocean by dolphins and otters and seals and all the others," she said. "But I think the whales need their space."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Cooper. 

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