Rich German figures he’s paddled 7,500 miles since he took up paddle boarding five years ago and made daily excursions into the Pacific Ocean part of his routine.
“It’s my church, my sanctuary, my exercise, my meditation,” said German, 45, who relocated to Laguna Beach in 2005 with two duffel bags of possessions after Hurricane Wilma destroyed his home in Key West, Fla.,
Now, German’s newfound muse may transform his life again after he captured footage of a pod of five killer whales languorously surfacing and diving two miles off Laguna Beach’s coastline on Jan. 7. The video he posted to his Facebook page and shared with Los Angeles television stations this week went viral, drawing national attention from CNN to NPR, and even a top trending ranking on Twitter.
Besides news organizations, German’s also fielding calls from animal rights and ocean conservation organizations and the makers of “Blackfish,” the 2013 documentary about the captive killer whale at Sea World that attacked its handler.
“I didn’t want to create attention for me, but I have a deep love for the ocean,” said German, who hopes the video will heighten appreciation for what he described as “our most sacred animals” even as whale and dolphin hunting persist and orcas remain in captivity.
From atop his 14-foot paddleboard that he launches from a North Laguna cove, German says he’s experienced many encounters with marine life large and small, from krill-eating blue whales, the ocean’s largest mammal, to nine different dolphin species.
Friends call him “the dolphin whisperer.” German is dismissive of the notion that
he summons creatures from the depths. He figures he sees more wildlife than most people because he’s now more familiar with migratory patterns and is on the water with regularity.
The orca video “was not a fluke, excuse the pun,” German said. A day before, he saw a Facebook post about an unusual sighting of an orca pod in Long Beach.
Killer whales are found in all parts of the oceans, but are most abundant in colder waters, including Antarctica, the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, says the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for marine mammal protection.
Transient orca pods surfaced in local waters in 2012 and 2013, coinciding with the migration of the gray whales from December to March.
Regulations prohibit impeding, entrapping or interfering with wildlife, said Laguna Beach’s marine protection chief, Kevin Snow, who was aware of German’s video.
Lifeguards occasionally must caution paddlers in Crescent Bay away from Seal Rock where sea lions “haul out” and warm themselves, but it’s not a common occurrence and the department has not cited anyone for harassing marine mammals, Snow said.
When German saw a group of eight boats congregating two miles from the local shoreline, he guessed they had found the orcas too. It took him 40 minutes of paddling to reach the boats and his hunch proved correct.
Breaching orcas that German says leaped through dreams as he slept now were surfacing beside the silenced boats. Then they seemed to show an interest in him, circling twice beneath his board. Despite their size – up to 22,000 pounds — German said he was unafraid. “There’s never been an attack on a human in the wild,” he said.
On the California Killer Whale Project Facebook page, marine biologist Alisa Schulman-Janiger identified the pod also seen aboard the Dana Wharf boat Sea Explorer as Biggs transient killer whales. Scientists tagged the pod CA51, led by its matriarch, Star, with three offspring, Orion, Bumper and Comet, ages 16, 11 and 4, respectively, she wrote.
Since a fishing ban was imposed on Laguna Beach in 2012, German believes he’s witnessed a rebound in marine life, which coincidentally has corresponded with his own deepening fascination with the ocean. For the past 15 years he’s earned a living as an online business consultant to entrepreneurs, but he senses the sea may also be transforming him. His 15 minutes of fame this week only underscores that change.
“This may be a higher calling, if part of my life becomes involved in ocean conservation. I can’t think of any more important work than that.”