A humpback whale flies through the air breaching the surface. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Watching a gigantic whale fly through the air as it breaks through the surface of the ocean is one of the most beautiful sights in the natural world. But for the crew of a boat in Mexico, that experience quickly turned into a nightmare when they got too close to a 7-tonne (6.4 metric ton) humpback whale which then slammed into them. , destroying the ship and injuring everyone on board.

The unusual incident happened on May 14 in the bay surrounding the port city of Topolobampo, in the Ahome region of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, at around 6:00 p.m. local time. The humpback whale – a juvenile despite its imposing size – climbed out of the water and landed directly on a small boat named “Andrea”, which nearly capsized the vessel. A video of the incident accompanied by shocked screams from onlookers was shared on Twitter by new Mexican site Línea Directa.

The four people on board – two men and two women, all believed to be local residents – were taken to hospital. One of the women suffered a broken leg and a man suffered serious head and rib injuries, according to Mexico Daily News. Pictures shared on Twitter by an eyewitness show the mutilated remains of “the Andrea”, with a collapsed roof, deformed metal bars and blood covering the seats, although it is unclear whether the blood belonged to the whale or the wounded crew.

Local authorities suggested “Andrea” harassed the humpback whale, which may have caused the stricken cetacean to deliberately breach above the vessel, according to Mexico News Daily. However, it’s also possible that the body slam that destroyed the boat was accidental.

Related: Rare White Humpback Whale Spotted Swimming With Dolphins Down Under

Mexico’s Environmental Protection Agency (Profepa) is currently investigating the incident. Authorities will assess the injuries to the whale, which is still in the bay surrounding Topolobampo, and if the animal is seriously injured, the crew of ‘Andrea’ could be fined under Mexican law for having injured a protected species, according to Direct line. The boat was also sailing without a required boating license plate and its crew members were not wearing life jackets when the accident occurred.

The eastern Pacific population of humpback whales, which migrate to Mexico between mid-December and late March to breed, are the only population of humpback whales on Earth that is still listed as threatened with extinction despite a recovery in numbers after the decline of the whaling industry, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Authorities have called on local boat captains to keep a respectful distance from visiting whales. “Please don’t get too close to the whales,” Gerardo Vargas, mayor of Ahome, told Mexico News Daily. “We can enjoy their beauty, but from a distance.”

Harassment of whale-watching vessels is listed as one of the top threats to humpback whales, along with ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, according to NOAA. In 2021, a study published in the journal Marine Science Frontiersfound that Hawaiian humpback whales that were closely pursued by whale-watching boats displayed increased swimming speed, higher respiration rates, and changes in diving behavior, all of which are signs distress and can be very costly in terms of energy for the whales.

Whale watchers observe humpback whales feeding on the surface from a nearby boat. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

“Whale watching can become a bigger problem if it continually disrupts critical behaviors such as nursing, breeding and feeding, as these are crucial for populations to grow and continue to recover,” said the study’s lead author, Jens Currie, Pacific Whale’s chief scientist. Foundation in Hawaii, Live Science said.

However, experts are unsure if the humpbacked juvenile’s body slam was a form of retaliation or an unlucky accident.

“I don’t think the whale retaliated against the harassment,” Currie said. “The whale was probably unaware of the boat’s proximity.” Breaching a vessel can also injure the whale itself and a more likely response to harassment would be to swim away from the area, he added.

“It’s very hard to say,” Lorenzo Fiori, an ecologist at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand who specializes in cetacean behavior, told Live Science. The video does not show what happened before the incident, which is necessary if you want to assign a motive, he added. “In any case, approaching a whale too closely is definitely a bad choice, especially when it is active on the surface.”

This is not the first case in which a humpback whale may have deliberately caused injury to humans. In 2020, two divers were hospitalized in Australia after swimming too close to a mother humpback whale and her calf. In this case, the bump loaded divers and hit them with its tail and pectoral fin.

Originally posted on Live Science.