Kayaking and SUP with Whales, Sharks, Dolphins, and Seals

Kayaking with a Humpback Whale
A kayaker has a close encounter with a humpback whale feeding on anchovies off the coast of San Francisco. Photo © by Michael Weber

While combining canoeing with bird watching or fishing is certainly a reason some people paddle, it is becoming increasingly popular to kayak and paddleboard in search of bigger more elusive life. The rise of the internet which has publicized these encounters between kayakers and paddleboarders with sharks and whales is adding to the allure of this endeavor. Here are some tips about SUP or kayaking with whales, sharks, dolphins, and seals.

Kayaking and SUP with Sharks

With the rise of the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, human encounters with sharks are on the rise. Kayak fishing has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 10 years and as such the more adventurous of this group also angle for sharks from their kayaks. Also, with standup paddleboarding’s increasing notoriety and given their unique vantage point over the water, more and more people are looking for sharks while paddling their SUP.

While I get the attraction, I don’t recommend going out and looking for a shark encounter from a kayak or a SUP. We’ve all seen the photos or heard the stories of bite size chunks taken out of surf boards and kayaks by great whites. And it is not out of the question for even small sharks to bump boats and boards to check them out. I wouldn’t want to lose my balance on a SUP and fall in to the delight of a curious shark. That being said, if I happened upon a shark while on my kayak or paddleboard, I would definitely relish the moment.

Kayaking and SUP with Whales

While Alaskan sea kayakers have long owned the rights to cool photos of themselves in kayaks with breathtaking panoramas in the background and whale tales in the foreground, this phenomenon is increasing with greater frequency in other parts of the U.S. and the world. What is cooler after all than kayaking with a whale?

It is almost becoming predictable for kayakers to be able to share in this experience as whale experts are increasingly able to predict the feeding patterns of these truly beautiful marine mammals.

While it is quite uncommon for whales to do any damage to humans, it is not out of the question. Their sheer size and weight makes an encounter with these gentile giants a dangerous proposition. It is true that whales are very good about where and how they breach the surface of the water, perhaps due to their sonar. However, as more people seek out this experience, the chances are going to go up of humans accidentally getting smacked by a fin, a tail, or a jumping whale. Also, as is unfortunately the case, as more people rent kayaks to get up close and personal with a blue or humpback whale , there will inevitably be that individual who will actually harass these creatures in the hopes of getting the perfect video, photo, or just to tell the story. This would be dangerous not only for them, but for anyone with them or any future person who encounters this whale.

Kayaking with Seals

Seals and sea lions are right up there in the list of cool sea life to kayak with. They’re fun and playful. They are very easy to find all up and down the coast of California.

And when kayaking with a seal, they almost seem to follow you and at some level are playing with the paddler.

However, as one of the main food sources for great whites, kayaking with seals or where seals are might not be the best idea. If you were to kayak anywhere near seals, and again, I’m not advising it, do so only in shallow water near the shore. Don’t go out into deep water where seals are swimming or you could be perceived as the weakest in the bunch by sharks lurking in the depths. Also, don’ try to touch or feed these guys. They can be pretty mean when they want to be.

Kayaking with Dolphins

Kayaking with dolphins is a dream encounter. They are so fun and playful. When a dolphin or school of them comes by they’ll make the kayaker feel as if they are actually swimming with them. Once when I was surf kayaking off of Jacksonville Beach some dolphins actually lined up and caught a wave I was on.

They rode it in and played in the surf right around me. It was one of my coolest and most memorable paddling experiences I’ve had.

There isn’t much to watch out for when kayaking or paddleboarding with dolphins. They’re so fast and you can’t really predict where they’ll be so paddling with them is more a chance encounter than something you can plan for. Also, they seem to dictate the terms of the encounter. It’s not like going to kayak with a pod of humpback whales feeding on some anchovies just off shore. When you paddle out to where some dolphins are, chances are they’ll already be gone. So, just exercise caution if some happen to swim up to you, around you, or choose to play with you. Don’t do anything to harass them. And, just cherish the moment and memory.