As we boarded our whale watching vessel at San Francisco Harbor, Oceanic Society naturalist Chris Pincetich spotted a marine invertebrate called a sea hare clasped on a floating log just under the surface. After a brief description of this creature, our trip began in search of whales and the Farallon Islands.
It soon became apparent that the weather conditions were below average and getting worse. About 5 miles out of port, our captain decided that reaching the Farallones would not only be uncomfortable but potentially unsafe. Although this does not happen often on our trips, we had a contingency plan and went to view a pod of humpback whales that was seen off the coast that morning.
We arrived at the reported site, a little south of Ocean Beach, and, as described, we spotted a group of humpback whales surfacing sporadically in about a 300-yard radius. Also in the area, there was a large flock of seabirds swirling around excitedly. Within a few minutes we saw one of the humpbacks lunge feed at the surface, coming out of the Pacific at a right angle.
The feeding behavior continued here and there for around 30 minutes when our attention was captured by another whale pec-slapping at the surface repeatedly.
With everyone’s attention on the pec-slapping humpback, another whale surfaced about 15 yards in front of the boat! Its massive blow holes were at first visible followed by a long, drawn out view of its dorsal fin.
We stayed in this area of high activity until finally the humpbacks moved on. Our encounter with the group of feeding and pec-slapping whales lasted close to 2 hours and after this we returned to port. Although the weather didn’t allow us to make it to the Farallon Islands, we were able to witness part of the magnificent population of humpback whales that come to our area to feed each summer, May through November.
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.