Humpback whale makes rare appearance in Gulf of Mexico

Nicholas Lynch was on the hunt for kingfish with his cousin. But on Tuesday, the lifelong recreational fisherman from Manatee County would capture something extremely rare.

"I was looking out on the horizon. I saw some white water, thinking it was fish," he told FOX 13. "As we started to turn around that way we saw a giant whale jump out of the water."

He put his fishing pole down and grabbed his cell phone. As he did, a humpback whale breached the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. 

"I couldn't believe my eyes," Lynch said. 

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The whale put on a show about 30 miles off Clearwater Beach.

"At one point we were trying to find it and it came up right behind the boat and followed us and went beneath us," he recalled. "In my opinion, we were only in 100 feet of water, we were 30 miles offshore and we saw probably about a 50-foot whale. Playing, slopping its tail, jumping out of the water. It’s pretty surreal. Once-in-a-lifetime experience." 

NOAA agrees. They say it truly is a rare experience in Florida. 

"We don’t know why they occasionally venture in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s certainly not typical of them to do that, but it does happen on a rare occasion," said Laura Englby, the marine mammal branch chief with the NOAA Fisheries southeast regional office.

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The whales are distinctive with the hump on the back, long white flippers and a tail with white patches. The last time a humpback whale was spotted in Florida was in 2018 off Panama City. 

Englby said documenting the occurrences is vital. 

"We really appreciate people reporting this because it’s a data point that’s important. Over time these things become valuable," she said. 

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For Lynch it's a trip that won't be forgotten. He came home with a whale of a tale. 

"We watched it jump a few more times and it kind of meandered away and we went back to fishing," he added. 

To report a sighting of dead, injured or entangled whales, you're asked to contact NOAA Fisheries at 1-877-WHALE-HELP, or the U.S. Coast Guard on marine VHF channel 16.