Capturing the "perfect" shot of an oceanic titan takes time, patience and practice ... but sometimes, you just get lucky. Really lucky!

That's how diver Ben Laboy describes his recent encounter with an inquisitive gray whale in California's Monterey Bay. The animal surprised Laboy when it materialised behind his dive partner, but he managed to bottle up his excitement until the behemoth faded from view, as swiftly as it appeared. (It's hard to believe this was Laboy's first time diving with a GoPro!)

"I will never forget looking into the eye of this majestic animal," Laboy wrote on Facebook, noting the whale came within feet of him and his dive buddy, Nicole Guido-Estrada.

Despite being just an arm's length away, neither diver attempted to make contact with the passing giant. (It was the right move: intentionally touching – or even approaching – whales can be dangerous, and it's also illegal in US waters). 

A few high fives and underwater squeals later, the pair returned to the surface and excitedly shared their footage with staff at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA). The team estimated the whale in Laboy's video was well over nine metres long (30ft) long. Adult gray whales can reach 15 metres (50ft), so despite its impressive bulk, this individual was still a young gun by those standards. Adults reach sexual maturity at only eight years, and live to be around 40.

"This took place a stone's throw from the Aquarium's back deck," Aquarium staff wrote in a Facebook post accompanying the clip. "It's perfectly poetic that Ben and Nicole came across this wandering whale off of McAbee Beach, once home to a whaling station and now host to impromptu underwater whale-watching."

Like so many of their close kin, gray whales were hunted almost to extinction between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, but decades of conservation work have seen this species stabilise, with around 20,000 individuals now in existence. Many of those whales are currently en route south along North America's Pacific coast, towards breeding lagoons in Baja California, Mexico. That lengthy migration begins in the Bering Sea, so the animal in Laboy's clip had likely travelled over 3,000 miles to arrive in Monterey Bay

"Not so long ago, this proud parade of gray whales was nearly lost to history," the MBA team said. "Today, spotting them on their migration is commonplace up and down the coast. You're bound to see a few spouts as signals to this conservation success story."

With any luck, Laboy's curious visitor will reach Baja in the coming weeks, where it will join in on the "fun" in the region's warm shallows.

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Top header image: Joe McKenna/Flickr