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Farallon Islands Whale Watch Sightings: August 6, 2016

By Chris Biertuempfel

On our Farallon Islands whale watching trip on August 6, 2016, as we headed toward the islands we saw a number of splashes off the left front of the boat on the horizon. Upon closer examination we discovered it was a lone humpback slapping its pectoral fin on the water. This particularly gregarious humpback was only the beginning of what would turn into a truly remarkable experience.

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

A humpback whale engaged in pectoral slapping. © Chris Biertuempfel

Shortly after the pec-slapping whale, we began seeing more than a dozen blows near the horizon. Within a few minutes we were completely surrounded by humpback whales. A pod of close to 20 whales were all around us, surfacing, blowing, and diving in unison for over 30 minutes. On the periphery of this group and towards the horizon, whales were breaching repeatedly. We witnessed at least 5 breaches within the next hour, some within 200 yards of our boat.

We were surrounded by a group of around 20 humpbacks. © Chris Biertuempfel

There were whales surfacing on all sides. © Chris Biertuempfel

It was an amazing opportunity for photography as the whales were coming up predictably and close to the boat. We could hear the humpbacks respire and whistle as they surfaced, and we were sprayed by the mist of their blows. These whales were around long enough that we overcame our initial excitement and surprise and entered into a relaxed appreciation of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

© Chris Biertuempfel

© Chris Biertuempfel

Eventually we moved on from the large group of humpbacks and reached the Farallon Islands. There we were greeted by thousands of vocal seabirds highlighted by a number of Tufted Puffins. Circling the islands we came upon scores of sea lions swimming in the swells, periodically taking a look at the boat.

California sea lions bobbing in the swells off the Farallon Islands. © Chris Biertuempfel

What had already been a full day was capped off by one last sighting on our way back to harbor. Immediately recognizable, a massive blue whale was traveling southwest about 6 miles east of the Farallones. It was moving remarkably fast and we only caught a glimpse of its blow off in the distance the second time it surfaced. With this fresh on our minds and a few scattered sightings on the way back, we pulled into San Francisco Harbor.

In total we witnessed:

  • 50 humpback whales
  • 2 blue whales
  • 1000+ California sea lions
  • 200+ northern fur seals
  • 30+ harbor seals
  • 2 stellar sea lion
  • ocean sunfish
  • “fried egg” jellyfish
  • Sooty Shearwater
  • Surf Scoter
  • Brandt’s Cormorant
  • Elegant Tern
  • Pigeon Guillemot
  • And Tufted Puffin

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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