Gray whale mom follows calf as it visits whale watchers. Photo: Courtesy of Mark Girardeau/Orange County Outdoors

Whale watchers off Southern California were watching a 45-foot gray whale and her newborn calf migrate along the coast Sunday when the calf suddenly left its mother's side to visit the vessel.

The rare phenomenon was captured via drone video, which shows the calf on a direct line toward the 23-foot inflatable boat, and both whales swimming beneath the vessel as mom tried to direct baby to a proper course.

"Oh they're right here!" Mark Girardeau informs passengers, while piloting the drone for Newport Coastal Adventure. "Oh my God, they're right under the boat!"

Girardeau, who runs Orange County Outdoors, told GrindTV, "I was trying hard to pay attention to my drone's view to make sure I got the shot, and I barely noticed the baby gray whale was less than 10 feet in front of me. I started freaking out, such an incredible experience!

About 21,000 gray whales are migrating from summer feeding grounds off Alaska to Baja California lagoons, which are used for nursing and mating.

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Contrary to popular opinion, most calves are born during the southbound migration, and not inside the lagoons. While they famously approach boats in the lagoons, with the guidance of their mothers, this rarely occurs during the precarious migration.

Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a whale researcher who specializes in gray whales and killer whales, said the calf was likely born in the past week or so. It might have been curious about the boat, or it might have mistaken the boat for another whale.

"Abandoned or orphaned calves have come into harbors and huddled against boats, seeking bigger boats, likely looking for mom," Schulman-Janiger said.


Momma gray whale and calf journey to Mexico. Photo: ©Mark Girardeau/Orange County Outdoors

Inside Baja California lagoons, mother gray whales appear to use small tourist boats as a means of babysitting calves as they nap. Tourists often pet and pose with gray whale calves alongside their boats.

"Plus, all calves are curious and get distracted," Schulman-Janiger, who runs the ACS-LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project from the Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Los Angeles County, continued. "Time and again, we watch cow/calf pairs off our Census… and see a calf turn around. The mom has to turn and go back and get it turned in the correct direction."

Girardeau had been conducting a live Facebook broadcast of the cow-calf pair Sunday, as the whales swam side-by-side.

"After a few minutes, I watched the whales change direction and things got interesting really quick, as I realized they were heading straight toward our boat."

The boat's motor was turned off throughout the close encounter.