A pair of right whales recently put on an impressive nearshore display, prompting one whale-watching fan to take a very risky swim to meet the massive mammals in the surf. It's hard to imagine why anyone would attempt to hang on to a 60-ton wild animal, but we've seen similar stunts before – more than once. The details surrounding the latest example of wildlife harassment are still a bit hazy, but it's clear that the swimmer's behaviour was both dangerous and illegal.

The clip was filmed by Graeme Grant, a dive guide and skipper with over 20 years experience in the African whale-watching industry. While the video description cites the US Marine Mammal Protection Act – suggesting that the clip was filmed off the American coast – we suspect that the incident actually took place somewhere near Cape Town, South Africa.

The whales in the clip aren't humpbacks as some have reported, they're right whales – likely southern right whales (Eubalaena australis). These tank-like filter-feeders are easily identified by the white callosities that pepper their snouts, as well as the paddle-like pectoral flippers you can see in the video. 

Approaching a whale like this is prohibited in South Africa, and Grant was shocked to see it play out. Even whale-watching tour operators who are permitted to offer "close encounters" must stay at least 50 metres away from all whales (those rules also apply for the humans they carry). A 300-metre gap must be maintained in all other circumstances that do not involve taking tourists on a close-encounter experience. 

In an interview with Story Trender, Grant explains that he and his team had been observing the right whales for some time when the man swam out to poke and prod them.  

"The whales were chasing each other around and then they started circling each other, close to the rocks and a public footpath," he said. "We then saw a man in the water, and I couldn’t believe it when he actually touched one of the whales. One slap of a [flipper] would swat him like a fly."

Luckily, the behemoths managed to shake their human accessory without causing injury.  

“What the swimmer did was foolish, as well as dangerous and illegal, and I hate to see harassment of whales, so I can’t endorse his actions in any way," added Grant. "[It's] astounding that he didn’t get hurt."

Southern right whale specialist Dr Els Vermeulen, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Pretoria Mammal Research Institute Whale Unit, agrees. 

"I can surely say that this is not a good idea at all, and is in fact very dangerous for the person in question," she says. In addition to her work in South Africa, Vermeulen has conducted year-long studies on the impacts of swimming with whales in Argentina. "I have seen very worrisome situations myself where people got injured, and have known various first-hand stories of underwater photographers being crushed and killed by southern right whales," she explains.

The recent encounter took place in a nearshore bay, but it's unlikely that the whales were sick or in the process of stranding. Southern right whales use the region's warm shallows as breeding and nursing grounds during the winter months. In fact, locals will likely see them well into November as the animals prepare to return to their icy Antarctic feeding grounds.

Whether or not the swimmer will face any charges remains unclear at this point. We'll be updating you as more information comes to light. 

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Top header image: Georgia Wildlife Resources Division/Flickr