“I rode a whale today.” Sounds like another hackneyed analogy for big wave riding, right? Not for Spyros Vamvas. Last week he became the first surfer ever to get a piggyback ride from a grey whale. The 60-year-old therapist and lifelong San Clemente surfer has told his Moby Dick come to life story to CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, BBC, NPR and a host of others, and today we made him tell his whale of a tale all over again to us.
Surfing Magazine: Where were you surfing when this happened?
Spyros Vamvas: I was at a little local San Clemente break called Lasuen. It’s right across from where I live.
How big were the waves?
That day it was only about 3 foot – glassy and peaky. I had it almost to myself.
Were you riding a longboard?
No, a 6’10″ shortboard?
And you’re 60 years old? That’s impressive.
So you were sitting outside by yourself waiting for waves and, from what I understand, the lifeguards had already noticed the whale in the lineup before you saw it?
Yeah. Evidently there’s a group of women that play volleyball there in the morning on the beach and they had called the lifeguards because they had spotted this whale in shallow water. The lifeguards came over and they were observing the whale and the whale started to move southward, parallel to the beach. I was facing the horizon. I had just caught a couple waves so I was watching swells to catch another wave and so I really didn’t see them standing on the beach. I heard later that they were all yelling and screaming. The whale then just headed right out towards me.
Was it a grey whale?
Yeah. The lifeguards said it was a grey whale.
The estimates for its size run up to 30 feet. Knowing the length of my board and how long it took for the whale to go under me it I would guess 30 feet’s about right.
When it came up underneath you, did you see the blowhole?
I was just straddling my board, sitting there and all of the sudden there was this thunderous loud sound underneath me and a lot of swirling water. A whale expert told me that was probably the whale blowing its blowhole underneath me. That certainly caught my attention.
What did you think was happening?
It was so loud, it was like an explosion. Then I was lifted upward and looked directly down and all I could see was the back of the whale and a whole lot of barnacles. But it positioned me so perfectly – it lifted me up and then it gently lowered me back down so that I remained in the same position. I never fell off my board.
Were your feet touching the whale the whole time?
Yeah. I was sitting on the whale. There was no water on his back. I was completely out of the water.
So you were literally riding the whale?
Yeah. I’m sitting here a few days later and I’m just in awe of the whole thing. I think he actually took care of me though because it would have been so easy for him to toss me over or whack me with his tail, crush me or ram me.
The experts said that the whale was probably lost?
The whale expert I talked to believed that the whale actually wanted to communicate with me. He didn’t think it was an accident.
What was it trying to say?
No one knows, but in the expert’s opinion was that it did want to communicate with me. It was kind of in an arch when it lifted me and when it submerged felt like forever for the tail to appear. Finally, the tail came up and I could see it on either side of me and it was huge! Then he descended and I watched him descend the whole way and then there was a vacuum sound – a sucking sound. Again if he hadn’t left me on that board in a seated position I would have been sucked down too. I felt like he was in control and I just had to trust him. I had to go along with it I couldn’t fight him. I really didn’t panic out there at all. When I got home later, I started having chills.
When it was over, did you paddle in right away?
No. Oddly enough, the lifeguards asked me why I stayed out there so long afterward. It was only probably another four or five minutes. The reason I didn’t go in was that I thought it I paddled in right away, maybe he would come back.
Have you been surfing since?
Oh yeah. Sure. I’ve been doing it my whole life. I went right back to the spot where I rode the whale.
So overall, how would you describe the experience?
It was awe-inspiring. It was very humbling. Nothing could top it.
Last question: were you wearing booties?
No. The water was warm.
Maybe you will next time to protect against those whale barnacles if he takes you for another ride.
(Laughs) I didn’t think of that.