The Inland Paddler: A Whale of a Tale

Lisa Schell Columns, Inland Paddler Leave a Comment


“Today, I think we are going to see something…big,” John said.

We both got a little quiet. Then, in almost a whisper, he continued.

“I dunno know why…it might be a shark, it could be a whale, but this just feels like one of those days.”

It was a little ominous.

We were the only ones on the beach.  It was the first truly chilly day of the winter, air temp was about 41 degrees, though the water temperature was still in the 60’s. It was a crystal clear December day, but the wind was starting to pick up.

We were hoping to catch a good swell, just right, so that I could practice a little downwinding technique in the inlet.  But by the time we got out to the North End of Wrightsville, things, as they are wont to do in North Carolina, had changed.

The surf wasn’t too difficult to punch through, beyond the break, the water was….well…in a word, squirrely.  I had just gotten back from Maui, where everything there is of course perfect: perfect water temperature, perfect air temperature, perfect wind for what ever you want to do, perfect salt to water ratio, perfect wave form, perfect coffee, perfect company – you get the picture. So, on this day back on the Atlantic side, I thought it was just me, and a little culture shock.

It was hard to stand, I mean really. It was hard to paddle.  I was doing a whole heck of a lot of work to follow John toward the mouth of the inlet.  And, it seemed like there was no way to really follow the beach in a parallel fashion toward our objective.  And I wasn’t seeing the perfect conditions the forecast had lead us to believe were materializing.

John, despite my best efforts, was getting farther and farther away from me.

I was going farther and farther offshore.

Which is to say, out to sea.

I struggled to paddle back in. Get closer to John.

My balance sucked on this very confused sea….wind blowing one way, swell coming in the other and current seemingly doing its own weird underwater dance.

I felt like a newb.

Which made me feel a little angry. I had just come from a great week where I had learned so much.  And now, I wasn’t able to put any of it together.

Between trying to keep from heading out across The Pond, and paddling back in, I noticed this huge gathering of birds.  But something just wasn’t right about them.  They were large, bobbing on the surface, but they weren’t pelicans.

Then I heard their calls.

Tremolo.  Trilling. A yodel of sorts.

Where have I heard that before?

“Norrrrrrr-man…..yourrrrr my kniiiiiiight in shiiiing arrrrrmaaah.” Katherine Hepburn to Henry Fonda.  “On Golden Pond” popped into my head.

LOONS!!!!  On the OCEAN!!!! WOW!!


Red throated loon

Photo by Mark Anthony from the Carolina Bird Club.

Apparently, it’s a common thing, but we don’t hear much about it because it’s only the old fool coots like John and me who are out there to see them in the winter.

Cool. Just cool.

One of the things I do just love about winter paddling is that you get to see the super cool things no one else does because you are not inside, on the couch, playing video games or catching up on your bing watching.

But that wasn’t all we noticed. The water was intermittently riled up with boils.  Gulls were going crazy amidst the loons.  Mullets were running, clearly in distress.

Several times I saw fins.  Big fins.  And big boils of water.

The Landlord was definitely in the house.

Along with the Man in the Grey Suit.

There were dolphins, too. Probably a few cobia, just for good measure.

John swore he saw dolphin with a really big fish in its mouth.

Mr. Dolphin not happy about having to pay his rent?

“Hey, let’s ditch the inlet idea and get closer to shore and just surf?” John suggested.

No argument from me.

It seemed like it took forever to get close enough in.

And then I fell in.

Then John too.

I tried not to think of the fins.

Thar she blows!

“WHOAH!!!! THERE IS SOMETHING OUT THERE!!!” John was back on his board, pointing out to sea.

“I think it’s a WHALE!!”

Nah. Couldn’t be.  I scanned the horizon.


Then we went back to our attempted surfing session.

About 10 minutes later, John was pointing again.

“I think I saw it again!!”

I looked.

Nothing again.

More attempts to catch the weird waves.  A few more times in the water.

Then, as I was recovering from a bad wipe-out and hard paddle back out, I saw it.

It’s a sight I have witnessed many times off the leeward side of Maui, and only once in North Carolina, but far out in the Gulf Stream, aboard a Coast Guard cutter returning from a sea turtle release.

A huge pectoral fin, rising up out of the water then rolling, as if to wave, the edges unmistakably scalloped, with distinct counter-shading.



Humpback whale off of Cape Hatteras -photo credit:

The fin disappeared, but not before I had a chance to shout out.

‘You’re right!! SHE’S THERE!! SHE’S THERE!!!!”

We saw her pectoral and a small portion of her body one more time.

After that, who really needed to surf anymore?

You can’t top that.

Being in the water with whales.  In North Carolina.

Having worked for several years as the communications and marketing manager of the North Carolina Aquariums, I recalled that the humpbacks, along with other species of whales, are not uncommon this time of year off our coast.  However, again, since we usually aren’t in the water or on the beach, we don’t often see them.  Unless one happens to beach itself, like this one did just days after our encounter.  I sure hope it wasn’t our whale.


Photo credit:

It was an amazing site.  And it made me feel like it was well worth the effort that it took to gear up and get out there.

We soon agreed that we were cold and hungry and we should probably call it a day.  We bundled up and found ourselves at the Epic Food Co., where we suddenly were so hungry that we felt like we could eat a meal the size of that whale!  John later admitted to me that the conditions out there were well beyond his own comfort zone.  In a weird way, that made me feel better about my own paddling performance that day.

Performance though, really wasn’t what the day was all about.

Oh, it may have started that way, but it turned into something much more special.  A shared experience that deepened a friendship.

How John knew it would be a special day out there, and that we would see that whale…well the Mullet is a man of many talents and mysteries.  And if I didn’t already know it before, that day in December confirmed it.  He is a very big part of my ohana.

And I would paddle into cold, disorganized, loon-filled and sharky waters to watch whales with him any day.

on golden pond