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Farallon Islands Whale Watch Sightings: June 5, 2016

By Chris Biertuempfel

A humpback whale near the Golden Gate Bridge. © Chris Biertuempfel

Sunday’s cruise left San Francisco Yacht Harbor through a low mist in very calm conditions. After a quick pass near Alcatraz, we made our way out of the bay toward the Farallon Islands. About 20 minutes in, we saw a blow and there was a humpback whale moving south between us and the Golden Gate bridge.

>> Click here to see all the photos from this trip.

We observed this individual for around 10 minutes before spotting more whales on the western horizon. After repeatedly surfacing together, these two humpbacks went down for a deep dive that took them out of range and we moved on. The calm sea conditions enabled us to make great time and before long we came upon the mist-shrouded silhouettes of the Farallon Islands.

The Farallon Islands were shrouded in mist. © Chris Biertuempfel

The remarkable clarity of the water allowed us to see Common Murre swim around and under the boat, using their wings to ‘fly’ underwater. But for every Murre in the water, there were 1,000 on shore in the dense rows of the largest seabird rookery in the contiguous United States.

Tens of thousands of Common Murre nest on the islands. © Chris Biertuempfel

After witnessing much of the diverse wildlife surrounding the islands, we took a side trip out to the ocean floor drop-off at the continental shelf. In this area we often see exotic birds such as albatross but this time we saw a lone Tufted Puffin making his way toward the southeast Farallon Islands. On the same track as this puffin, we then saw another humpback between the Farallones and our boat.

A humpback whale in front of the Farallon Islands. © Chris Biertuempfel

This whale was feeding on massive schools of baitfish and we observed it lunge feed at the surface twice in 5 minutes. After this sighting we came across what appeared to be a dorsal fin slowly bobbing on the surface of the calm water. Upon closer investigation it turned out to be an ocean sunfish (Mola mola) drifting in the swells.

An ocean sunfish (Mola mola) at the surface. © Chris Biertuempfel

On our way back to the harbor a California sea lion passed us going the opposite direction, ‘porpoising’ up and out of the water. By the time we returned, the fog had lifted and we disembarked onto the sunny Marina Green.

A porpoising California sea lion. © Chris Biertuempfel

In total, we witnessed:

Marine Mammals

  • 8 humpback whales
  • 8 harbor porpoise
  • 5+ northern fur seal
  • 25+ California sea lion & harbor seals


  • Brown Pelicans
  • Tufted Puffins
  • Brandt’s Cormorants
  • Pelagic Cormorants
  • Double-crested Cormorants
  • Sooty Shearwaters
  • Western Gulls
  • Common Murres
  • Pigeon Guillemots

Chris Biertuempfel manages Oceanic Society’s California-based programs, continuing the non-profit’s tradition of ocean faring expeditions that began in 1972. Also, he leads whale-centric expeditions in California and Mexico as a naturalist. His work as a photographer from such trips has been featured in several media outlets, including the San Francisco Chronicle and ABC News.


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