Close encounters of the whale kind

Whale watchers are seen off the coast of California near Santa Cruz in November, 2011. A pod has come much closer than in previous years.

If you want to go whale watching, you normally have to head out a few miles in order to get a glimpse of the majestic animals. But this year, a pod of humpback whales near Santa Cruz, Calif. is swimming closer to the shore than they have for years. CBS News correspondent John Blackstone headed to the Pacific coast to see the humpbacks face-to-face.

According to Santa Cruz whale watching captain Ken Stagnaro, this year's whales have come so close to shore that people can literally see them from the beach.

This also means that there's been some dangerous close encounters with surfers and kayakers. At 40 feet long and more than 30 tons, humpback whales present a clear risk since they feed on anchovies. But so far, the whales seem to be more interesting in observing us than eating us, Stagnaro explained.

Humpback whales shock kayakers, surfer
Humpback whales: Close-up and on cam

For the safety of both whales and humans, the Marine Mammal Act makes it a crime to get within 100 yards of a whale, but, there's no law against whales coming close to people, said naturalist Maureen Gilbert.

"Sometimes it seems like they're as intrigued with us as we are with them," she said.

That is certainly how it seemed to those on an Oceanic Society whale watching trip off San Francisco. Four humpback whales just kept circling the boat, lifting their fins so close they could be touched.

We don't know what affect these close encounters have on the whale. but Gilbert knows for sure what they do to humans.

"You are never the same after you see a whale in the wild," she said.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.