Jay DeBenedict was livelining bunker and settling in for a day of fishing with buddy Robert Riley off the coast of Seaside Park on Monday when the pair got the surprise – and the scare – of their lives.
“We saw whales throughout the day, but we didn’t see this one,” DeBenedict, 62, said. “Out of nowhere, this whale breached and I thought he was going to land in the middle of the boat. He hit right against the T-top.”
The men’s 23-foot center console boat was rocked by the weight of the whale to the point where it tipped over, sending both into the ocean. Then, the terror of being immersed in the water got even more bizarre.
“When I stepped down, I was on the whale,” said DeBenedict, a Surf City resident. ” I pushed off him and got away from him, but I didn’t want to get too far away from the boat either.”
“We swam back, got on the boat, and it had a lot of water in it,” said DeBenedict. “I said, ‘let’s just point the boat toward the shore.'”
Amazingly, the boat had righted itself after the trauma of the hit, which DeBenedict said could only be compared to the sound of a car wreck. The swamped boat’s engine stayed on, in neutral, and the pair called police and pointed the bow directly west – toward the Seaside Park beach.
“If we had been near the inlet, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now,” DeBenedict told Shorebeat a few hours after the incident.
The episode also merited a call to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, who dispatched a marine biologist to see if the whale could be located. Indeed, the whale is thought to have been a juvenile – had it been an adult, the biologist theorized, the boat would have been fully destroyed and neither man would likely have been able to get back to shore.
Whales have been sighted commonly along the New Jersey coast this spring, including one that took up residence inside the Navesink River in Monmouth County. Anglers, both on boats and from shore, have reported seeing whales almost every day in recent weeks.
“I really thought we were going to be crushed,” DeBenedict recalled. “There was no time for fear, no time for jumping out of the water, not that it would’ve done any good.”
The strangest part of the whole experience: “I knew I was safe in the water, but I was standing on the whale, that was a little freaky,” he said. “When I got back to shore, I knew it wasn’t funny, but I was laughing – like, ‘did this just happen to me?’”
Almost just as amazing as the entire experience was a stroke of good luck during the incident. While climbing back onto the boat, DeBenedict and Riley’s personal items floated right up to them, allowing DeBenedict to grab his prized fishing rod as well as his wallet from the surf.
He said the pair was helped by Seaside Park police officers who guided them safely through the breakers onto the beach. From there, a pickup truck with a trailer took the boat onto dry land where it can be repaired.
“It just came out of nowhere,” he said.