Close encounter of the dangerous kind: Monterey woman recovering after running into a whale

Monterey woman recovering after whale collision

Melissa Thomas at McAbee Beach in Monterey on Friday. Thomas sustained injuries while on a boat that struck a whale. (Vern Fisher – Monterey Herald)
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MONTEREY — The morning of Sept. 30 was one Melissa Thomas will always remember – and not in a good way.

The 48-year-old had her life forever changed when the dive boat she was on slammed into a humpback whale, which she estimated to be around 30 tons. Taking the brunt of the impact, she suffered life-threatening injuries from which she is still recovering.

The healing process has been long and painful for the former Minnesotan who now lives in Monterey and works in Pebble Beach. But Thomas is optimistic. She believes the worst is over and, with time, she will heal.

“I’ve been through a lot,” she says. But the experience has taught her, she says, to “slow down” and take a more positive outlook on life.

An avid scuba diver, self-professed “nature lover” and wildlife photographer, Thomas was preparing for a dive in Monterey Bay when the accident occurred. She and three friends, including her sister, were just off Point Pinos.

“It was early morning and the water was placid and calm,” she recalls.

Melissa Thomas at McAbee Beach in Monterey on Friday. Thomas sustained injuries while on a boat that struck a whale. (Vern Fisher – Monterey Herald)

A large pod of humpback whales – always an exciting sight in the Bay – was feeding nearby. Motivated by the prospect of watching the animals feed, the boaters veered the 24-foot boat over to take a closer look.

Thomas and her friends viewed the whales from a safe distance, marveling as the creatures breached and lunged out of the water, gorging themselves on anchovies and herring.

Even now, she still remembers the morning – at least the earlier part – with fondness. “They were lunge feeding,” she says. “We felt really fortunate to see that.”

After 30 minutes, they decided to leave the whales behind. They turned the boat around and headed toward their dive spot.

Suddenly a humpback heaved out of the water in front of the boat. Thomas, who was positioned on the bow, yelled “Whale!” But the creature was too close for the boat to stop. Bracing for impact, Thomas recalls grabbing the rail with her left hand.

“It was like hitting a brick wall,” she says, describing the sensation of slamming into the creature’s back.

Thomas was thrown backward, her head crashing into the boat’s windshield, shattering the glass. As the boat lurched to a shuddering stop on top of the whale, Thomas was tossed the opposite way, smashing into the boat’s railing.

Her friends called 911 and raced back to shore. They did their best to stabilize Thomas as blood pooled from a deep laceration on the back of her head. She had blacked out during impact but gradually came to as the boat raced across the water.

“I was in a lot of pain when I awoke,” she says. “My head hurt, and I couldn’t feel my left arm.”

But her first thoughts were for the welfare of the whale. “I wondered if the whale was OK,” she recalls.

Emergency medical technicians met them at the dock and immediately administered to Thomas. But it was obvious she needed to get to a hospital – and fast. She was rushed in an ambulance to Natividad Medical Center in Salinas and wheeled into the trauma unit.

Her injuries were severe and extensive. In addition to numerous cuts and contusions, she suffered a broken jaw, a broken rib, a cracked shoulder blade and clavicle, and several fractures along her spine. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. Especially serious was the injury to the brachial plexus, which is a complex network of nerves that runs from the upper part of the spine, passes under the clavicle, and proceeds down into the arm. She had damaged it when she held onto the railing during impact. Her arm was stretched, and she suffered extreme whiplash. The brachial plexus plays a prominent role in the movement of the arms, elbows, wrists and hands. This damage left Thomas’s left arm and hand with a limited range of motion.

“The nerve damage made it feel like my arm was on fire,” Thomas says.

She stayed in intensive care before eventually being transferred to the Acute Rehabilitation Unit at the hospital. There she received intensive therapy aimed at bringing back feeling and range of motion to her injured body. She also underwent surgery for her jaw, which resulted in having her mandible wired shut for nearly five weeks. All told, she spent 24 days in the hospital until she was finally released.

It’s been seven months now since the accident. Thomas is back home and back at work, though she admits she isn’t at full strength.

“My left arm is 50% back,” she says. But she still has trouble manipulating it; she can’t lift it above her head and grasping things with her left hand has proven difficult.

“The greatest challenge is having just one hand to manage my daily routines,” she says. “As you might imagine, the daily chore of getting dressed can be exhausting.”

Although she admits she is challenged, she is still able to fulfill her duties at her job at the Pebble Beach Club.

While many of her cuts, bruises and bones have healed, she is still undergoing therapy. She sees two different therapists four times a week. One is a hand expert and the other specializes in rehabilitating limbs. Thomas expects to continue the rehabilitation at least until the end of the year.

If all goes well, she also anticipates her damaged nerves to recover after two years.

“Nerves grow about an inch a month,” she explains. “And I’m at the shoulder mark right now.”

Despite the terrible accident, Thomas’s enthusiasm and love for whales hasn’t dampened. “I still love them,” she says. “I moved to Monterey to be closer to the ocean. It is vast and carries many beautiful living things.”

She considers whales to be her “spirit animals,” though she says she doesn’t want to sound too New Age. More concretely, she wants people to know, despite her experience, that we need to respect and look out for whales.

“We share the ocean with them,” she says, so it’s crucial we tread lightly when out boating. Accordingly, she endorses adding prominent placards reminding boaters to slow down when around whales.

This sentiment is shared by Ari Friedlaender, a marine biologist and whale specialist at UC Santa Cruz.  When people are whale watching, he says, “What we always preach is to be aware of where the whales are. When you’re within a certain distance of them going slow is the key. That way, the risk to the whale decreases substantially, and the risk to the boat and the boaters does as well. It’s about diligence and going slow.”

Like a lot of people who have suffered traumatic life experiences, Thomas now sees life a little differently than she did before. “I feel the experience has brought me closer to my family and made me realize how fragile life is.”

Right now, she wants people to know that her own experience has taught her that a positive outlook on life is hugely important. “It’s so easy to get depressed when something bad happens to us,” she says. “I’ve been learning that you have to be positive in order to heal because that’s the best way for your body to recover.”

Thomas’s friends have set up a GoFundme account (https://www.gofundme.com/recovery-fund-for-melissa-thomas) to help defray the costs of her medical expenses.

For information on whales while boating, people can tune into the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service (VTS), which monitors selected local waters and reports on traffic conditions. It gathers information about whale sightings in real time and relays that information to boaters via channel 12, 156.6 MHZ (VHF-FM). For more information, go to: https://www.navcen.uscg.gov/?pageName=vtsMain.

For general information on whale/ship collisions, go to: http://westcoast.whalealert.org/.

 

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