DESTIN — Karen Bilger and her family were enjoying a nice Easter Sunday cobia fishing in the Gulf of Mexico when they saw something big and white under the surface.
But it wasn’t the Easter bunny, and it definitely wasn’t cobia.
“We were coming out of the (East) Pass, right where Sandpiper Cove is, about a half-mile offshore,” Bilger said. “We saw this big white thing, you could see his flippers or something, and then all of sudden we heard this blow and then a whale came out of the water and then went down again.”
Bilger quickly pulled out her cellphone and shot video of the whale as it followed along their boat for about 2 miles, she said. It came up for air and then dipped back under the water several times.
“He was really close to our boat,” she said. “He went under our boat, beside our boat ... it was just really neat. All we were doing was looking for cobia.”
Bilger said the whale eventually disappeared after the boat changed course. A Destin native and avid fisherman, Bilger said she had never seen a whale off Destin.
Neither had Kimberlee Hicks.
Hicks, her daughter Kennedy and her boyfriend Ross Shelley, all of Destin, were also cobia fishing Sunday past the first sand bar when they saw a humpback whale breach — or jump out of the water — at least two times.
“It got a little bit ahead of us, and I was sitting on the front of the boat and it jumped completely out of the water and it was just playing,” she said. “And then another time, it came up probably about 200 yards from the boat, and we have a 26-foot Pathfinder and it was as big, if not longer, than the boat.”
Hicks said she and Shelley thought the whale was “amazing,” but her daughter wasn’t as impressed.
“Kennedy thought it was a sea monster,” she said with a laugh. “She was panicking a little bit.”
Although not normal, it isn’t the first humpback whale spotting in local waters recently. Paddleboarders Jake Williams and Jake Ritch spotted a humpback whale March 22 just off Seacrest Beach. A humpback also was seen 12 to 15 miles off Panama City Beach in February.
Shelby Proie, a marine mammal stranding coordinator with the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, said it’s believed to be the same whale in all three sightings, but the animal has no official tracking device or identifying information, so officials can’t be certain. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration was made aware of the whale after its first spotting in Panama City Beach and has been tracking its movements closely, she said.
Patrick Berry, general manager of the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, said whales are uncommon in this area, but not unheard of.
“One reason an animal like that might come into this area is there could be a food source,” he said.
Proie said there’s nothing to indicate the whale is in any kind of trouble, and is likely a juvenile humpback whale just looking for plankton after a long winter.
“Or it could be on spring break,” she said with a laugh.
All species of marine mammals, including whales, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which mandates humans stay at least 100 yards away in the wild. According to NOAA, it is illegal to feed, attempt to feed or otherwise harass marine mammals.
Proie said if a whale comes up to your boat, the best thing to do is turn off the engine and try and maintain as safe a distance as possible.
Report any whale sightings to the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge at 850-650-1880 or directly to NOAA at 1-877-SOS-WHALE (1-877-767-9425).
VIDEO: Another view of the whale