Mark Girardeau was waiting for the moment when the swimmers would freak out, realizing a whale was swimming right next to them.
His drone hovered above as the whale cruised into the shallows, near snorkelers and a woman on an alligator raft hanging out in the crystal-clear blue water near Treasure Island beach in Laguna.
But they didn’t flinch as the whale cruised on by before turning around and heading back to sea.
Girardeau, of Huntington Beach, was just out to document the markings on the gray whale, which earlier in the day created a big buzz when it popped up in the Dana Point Harbor.
Little did he know the video would go viral, with about 1.3 million views as of Friday morning, Aug. 11.
Girardeau is no stranger to getting rare videos, capturing wildlife around Orange County, and this isn’t the first time a video of his has gone viral.
He’s a regular on whale-watching charters, usually shooting images from Newport Coastal Adventure, and spends time in nearby mountains to get video of wildlife such as deers, mountain lions and bobcats.
His first taste of social stardom came after he shot video of a whale named “Wally” with a rainbow that showed up in its misty spout. That video two years ago also generated a million views.
“That was the first one that kind of went viral,” he said. “Now whenever I go out there, I think, ‘I hope we see something cool or out-of-the-ordinary.” Sadly, when Wally died, another video he shot of the whale went viral — with tens of thousands of views — as it was towed out to sea.
By the Girardeau showed up in Dana Point on Tuesday, his latest viral subject had just departed from the harbor.
“I was kind of bummed. I knew if the whale took the normal migration path, I could intercept it at Aliso Beach about an hour later,” he said. “Sure enough, it passed right by Aliso Beach.”
He didn’t set out to get a viral video — he was simply trying to document the whale so experts could use the images for positive identification based on barnacle patterns.
He turned on the video recorder from his drone as it went above the clear water of Treasure Island near the Montage resort.
“It started going right into the people,” he said to a friend who was with him. “The whale is going to pop up here. We were watching the whale come up — these people are going to be really scared.”
But when the 15-to 20-foot whale emerged, no one noticed it.
“We were like, ‘Wait, how do these people not see it’?” he said.
Girardeau said from an aerial view, the water is a lot clearer. It’s much darker when you are in it, and a glare from the sun could have limited their ability to see the whale.
“It’s a big mammal right under you — it’s not like a little fish or something, it’s a big animal,” he said. “What if it was a shark, the people would never even know … it’s still kind of creepy, even if a whale doesn’t have teeth and it’s not going to bite you.”
If he were in the water and dipped his head underwater to suddenly come face-to-face with a whale, he would have been spooked, Girardeau admitted.
“I probably would have got out of the water so fast, I would have walked on water just because of the surprise of it,” he said.
Girardeau knew the video would be a hit when within the first 30 minutes of posting, it had 100,000 views. In the past few days, national websites such as National Geographic and MSN have posted the video.
Register reporter Erika Richie contributed to this story.
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