A shocking video that was record off the California coast years ago has resurfaced on social media. Filmed in November 2020, the short clip shows the hair-raising moment when a large humpback whale nearly swallowed two kayakers whole.

The two kayakers, Julie McSorley and Liz Cottriel, were paddling a tandem kayak together in San Luis Obispo Bay when they unintentionally became the stars of the viral video. Their boat was one of several that had drifted out beyond the surf where a group of humpback whales was feeding on the surface.

The video, which was recorded by another whale-watcher on a different vessel, shows Cottriel, McSorley, and the other boaters looking on as the humpbacks breach the surface to gorge on balls of baitfish. Cottriel and McSorley suddenly find themselves in the middle of all this bait as a whale breaks the surface directly underneath them, its giant mouth agape. The whale appears to swallow the kayak whole before it closes its mouth and falls back into the ocean.

As the water settles, however, the overturned kayak and the two uninjured paddlers can be seen floating on the surface. Because of the angle of the video, it’s unclear how long the kayakers were in the whale’s mouth—or if they were even swallowed at all.

“I thought it was going to land on me,” Cottriel told reporters after the incident. “Next thing I know I’m underwater.”

McSorley explained that all she felt was the boat rise before she found herself underwater. She could never tell if she was underneath the whale, in its mouth, or what actually happened during those few brief seconds.

“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.”

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Looking back on the incident, Cottriel and McSorley were also hit with the realization that they were far too close to the feeding whales at the time. The two paddlers said they would be giving whales much more space in the future.

Federal law prohibits paddlers, anglers, and other members of the public from approaching whales or getting too close to the large mammals. A good rule of thumb, according to NOAA Fisheries, is to stay at least 100 yards from whales unless other rules apply. The California Division of Boating and Waterways offers the same advice, stating that “boaters, including paddle boarders and kayakers, should not approach a whale within 300 feet.”

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