March 10, 2007 — -- Randall and Gwen Thornton are recovering in Utah after a close encounter with a humpback whale -- one that was considerably closer than they had planned.
The Thortons and a group of their friends had traveled to the Dominican Republic to swim with whales in a sanctuary off the coast. On the last day of their week-long trip, they were snorkeling near a sleeping mother and her calf. Mother whales push their calves to the surface to teach them to breathe, so the calf was above the adult.
"We had gotten extremely close, closer than we had been all week," Randall Thornton told ABC News affiliate KTVX-TV in Salt Lake City. But the ocean current pushed the group even closer than they had intended, directly over the sleeping calf.
"It surfaced right underneath us," Randall Thornton said. "The calf got spooked. It startled the mother, and all hell broke loose."
A whip of the mother whale's tail sent Gwen Thornton flying 20 feet, knocked another woman unconscious, and broke Randall Thornton's leg. It was all recorded on video by another of the divers.
Thornton endured a nine-and-a-half-hour boat ride back to shore, lying on the deck with a broken femur.
Whale-watching is a billion-dollar industry worldwide, and growing in popularity year after year. But as humans inch closer to wildlife in natural habitats, serious dangers emerge.
The Thorntons and their friends were far luckier than Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, who was killed by a stingray while filming a documentary last September.
Dan Stockdale, an animal trainer and leadership guru who has worked with exotic creatures since 1978, says that most animal attacks stem from three causes -- food, fear and sex. When humans infringe on an animal's turf, a startled creature can quickly turn violent.
In Irwin's case, "the stingray was startled by his presence," Stockdale said. "The tail response was involuntary."
Yet even though a natural response from an untamed creature can kill, Stockdale sees great value in working with wild creatures.
"I think it is extremely important that there are those that are willing to take some risk and get the message out there for conservation purposes," he said.
For Randall Thornton, the risk and the consequences aren't enough to keep him away.
"I'd do it again in a heartbeat," he told KTVX. "It was one of those life-changing things."