When Southern California surfer Jodie Nelson set out Sunday to standup-paddle nearly 40 miles from Santa Catalina Island to Dana Point, she hoped it'd inspire her best friend, who has been involved in a long and exhausting struggle with breast cancer, to keep fighting.Nelson, 34, whose mother and aunt are cancer survivors, also hoped her nine-hour test of endurance would raise money for two cancer charities and heighten awareness about a plight affecting millions of women.
What Nelson did not figure on was that a 30-foot minke whale would swim alongside her 14-foot board and accompany the surfer as she stood and paddled for two of those nine hours, thus joining the cause.
"It was a day that all of us involved will never forget," the San Clemente resident says, in reference to Angela Robinson, her best friend, and the rest of a crew aboard an escort boat.
Minke whales are not commonly seen off Southern California, and those spotted by boaters are often elusive. So when a mammal Nelson named Larry chose to become part of her endeavor to become the first woman to make this long paddle, she took it as a sign.
"To me it was a total God thing," she said. "We prayed at 4 that morning that God would reveal his beauty and creation and nature, and allow me to endure this long trek, so for me it's not such a huge surprise that this happened."
Larry did not merely swim close to Nelson. He rolled around repeatedly alongside her and blew bubbles beneath her board. A film crew was on the escort boat and CNN, Fox News and ABC are just some of the networks she says are interested in her story and the footage.
Alisa Schulman-Janiger, an American Cetacean Society whale researcher, said minke whales can be friendly but added: "This type of quality encounter is highly unusual."
Nelson raised only about $6,000 in advance of the paddle, disappointingly short of her target of $100,000 for the Keep a Breast Foundation and Boarding for Breast Cancer. A few of her celebrity friends let her down, she said, but when this story reaches a national audience she expects the pool to grow considerably.
"I thought, 'I don't need so-and-so,' " she said of a particular celebrity, whom she declined to name. "Because I honestly feel like Larry is going to help us reach the $100,000 mark with our fund-raising effort."
Larry or no Larry, completing a standup paddle over 39.8 miles of ocean and sharks speaks volumes about Nelson's strength, stamina and determination.
Larry took her mind off the task for two magical hours, but her mind never strayed from the cause. "I can't even begin to compare what I did to what cancer patients are going through," she said. "But I wanted to put myself out there in a dangerous and scary, overwhelming situation; something that was big and just to show people that you can win that battle with that big, scary thing called cancer.
"I wanted to draw some kind of parallel and just encourage people to keep fighting."
Those wishing to help Nelson reach her target can do so via her page on the Keep a Breast Foundation website.
-- Pete Thomas